Borissov fights to hold on to power in Bulgarian election

Borissov fights to hold on to power in Bulgarian election
Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov on the campaign trail.
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia March 31, 2021

With mass campaign events ruled out during the pandemic, Bulgaria’s long-serving Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has been crisscrossing the country in his Jeep and broadcasting live on Facebook in an attempt to reach the people and convince them to back his Gerb party for another term. 

Bulgarians will vote for the next parliament on April 4 with the outcome seen as the most uncertain in decades as polls indicate the traditional ruling parties will not gain enough support to form a government, and at least three new formations will pass the threshold to enter parliament, one of them seen as possible kingmaker.

The vote follows four years of constant scandals, months-long protests and growing dissatisfaction with the government’s failure to deal with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the economic crisis it has caused.

Gerb is still leading the polls: the latest put the party on around 28% of the vote, well ahead of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) on around 23%. Borissov, who is about to end his third mandate, still has higher personal ratings than Gerb, but trust in the prime minister has been falling after several scandals linking him to alleged corruption and abuse of power.

Analysts expect that Gerb will face significant challenges to form a new ruling coalition as its current coalition partner, the far-right VMRO, has little chance of passing the 4% threshold. 

To form a new government, therefore, Gerb would need to find a new partner among the parties that are expected to gain seats on Sunday. 

Popular showman Slavi Trifonov’s There Are Such People is seen ranking third with around 13% of the vote, making it a potential kingmaker. There Are Such People is polling ahead of ethnic-Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which could gain around 12%.

The DPS informally supported Gerb during its current mandate, but Borissov might not want to enter into a formal coalition with the party, whose member Delyan Peevski and the chairman of honour Ahmed Dogan have become synonyms for corruption and murky deals with those in power.

On the other hand, this time around the DPS has not nominated Peevski as an MP candidate, which is seen as a possible attempt by Dogan to remove him and clean up the party’s image, which might give Borissov enough reason to enter into coalition with the DPS.

Neither of the other two newcomers expected to enter the parliament are likely coalition partners for Gerb, having been part of the mass anti-government protests last number. The centre-right reform-oriented Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up! Thugs Out!, the coalition between former ombudsman Maya Manolova and the Poisonous Trio, the informal organiser of the months-long protests, are projected to get 6% and 4.5% of the vote respectively.

A change of power? 

Should Gerb fail to form a ruling coalition, the BSP would be given a mandate to try. However, the party would not have enough MPs even if it forms a coalition with the DPS and Stand up! Thugs out!, or even with VMRO should the party manage to pass the threshold.

If both Gerb and the BSP fail to put together a coalition, the mandate would most likely then pass to Trifonov, a newcomer to politics and a somewhat unknown quantity. 

He might be able to persuade Democratic Bulgaria and Stand up! Thugs out! to join his government. However, earlier in March, Hristo Ivanov, one of the leaders of Democratic Bulgaria, said it would not enter in coalitions but would seek consensus on its priorities if given a mandate.

Trifonov has clearly stated he would not form coalition with Gerb, the BSP or the DPS, yet he is still seen as a potential new coalition partner for Borissov as in the past he has spoken very positively about both Borissov and Dogan.

On the other hand, there have been unproven rumours that controversial businessmen are funding Trifonov in an attempt to replace Borissov, whose charm seems to be exhausted in Bulgaria after dozens of political scandals and three mandates as prime minister.

Online campaigning

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, political parties were not allowed to do their usual campaigning with gatherings of supporters and had to go mainly online.

Borissov campaigned in person and online, but did not participate in the public presentation of his party’s programme for the next four years, which was widely criticised as repeating the previous programme with just slight amendments.

Meanwhile the prime minister used the live broadcasts to criticise his opponents. “Our opponents are weak, they do not have programmes, they do not have experience and they do not have anything to show. We work and develop all sectors of the Bulgarian economy,” Borissov said on March 31.

The comment was mainly directed at Democratic Bulgaria, one of whose leaders, Ivanov, riposted: “Borissov is nervous that this time the sudoku might not be solved and he night be left without an opportunity to rule with the DPS but to stay in real opposition.” 

Another Democratic Bulgaria candidate, the prominent publisher Manol Peykov, also campaigned online, writing that people are angry and stressed out due to the lack of rule of law in the country and the lack of justice.

“If you start seeing happy people on the streets, this means we have arrived where we have always dreamed to be – to the continent of rule of law and the unconditional respect for personal space and personal dignity. Or, we have at least gone beyond half of the distance [towards it],” Peykov wrote on Facebook.

Trifonov refused to participate in any public debates and was not active on social media, but his supporters have arranged a few events, including soap bubble making in playgrounds where parents were handed brochures with the names of candidates.

Brochures were widely used by all other political parties as one of the few tools left amid the pandemic.

Pandemic at its peak

Bulgarians are picking 240 MPs for the unicameral parliament’s four-year term in the first regular general election after several snap votes. They will vote amid the highest-ever numbers of new coronavirus cases seen in the past weeks, which might have decisive impact on the turnout. According to a poll carried out by Trend agency earlier in March, the turnout would be lower than previously expected, at 45%. Previous polls indicated a turnout of above 50%, but as the situation with the coronavirus is worsening, analysts expect that more people will decide not to go to the polling stations. This would help the leading parties that have established voters who would cast their votes despite the situation.

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee has raised concerns that around 15,000 people might not be able to vote as they are in quarantine. Bulgaria has amended its legislation, allowing mobile polling stations to visit people under quarantine, but the Central Election Committee (CEC) has indicated that this might be challenging.

Many Bulgarians are were angered by Borissov’s decision to ease most restrictions as of April 1 amid spiking new coronavirus cases, (reaching a record-high 5,165 new cases in 24 hours on March 31) and accuse him of making a populist decision to boost his share of the vote. 

Borissov was criticised of risking people’s lives and at the same time playing with their fears of contamination with all his actions related to the management of the pandemic. The country is among the global leaders in terms of the share of infected people and of fatalities.

Despite that, Borissov and Health Minister Kostadin Angelov claim the situation allows an easing of restrictions, explaining this decision was motivated by people’s fatigue with the restrictions and that the government is only cancelling the measures that can be safely lifted.

Meanwhile, whoever forms Bulgaria’s next government will be facing strong economic uncertainty due to the coronacrisis and the stalled reforms.

Borissov’s government has not made any major reforms during its four-year mandate and was accused by businesses of not taking adequate measures to support them during the crisis.

The main measures adopted by the government since the start of the pandemic were related to job retention via state aid for wage payments. However, these measures were not widely used by companies as the procedures were too complicated.

Risks of ‘controlled’ voting

Ahead of the election, NGOs have been warning of possible cases of ‘controlled’ voting. Such cases have been widely reported in each of the previous elections but so far no one has been convicted.

According to the Anticorruption Fund NGO, risks of controlled voting have been identified at more than 2,500 out of around 12,000 polling stations across the country. The conclusion was based on examination of data from previous elections between 2013 and 2019.

Between 5% and nearly 19% of all votes might be paid for by political parties, according to calculations based on previous elections. This could significantly change the outcome, especially if the turnout is low as expected, analysts have commented.

According to Tihomir Bezlov, an analyst from the Centre for the Study of Democracy, the bribing of voters increased significantly after 2003, when it spread across larger groups of people, including students and citizens of larger towns.

Since 2014, according to Bezlov, there have been brokers who purchased voters for more than one political party at the same time, paying between BGN30 (€15.3) and BGN50.

“At the local election in 2019 in some places the sums were three-digit. Probably in this election there will be higher sums too,” Bezlov was quoted as saying in the Anticorruption Fund’s survey.