The center-right party GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) is the clear winner in the Bulgarian parliamentary election.
GERB managed to win 32.63 % of the votes, which enables the party leader Boyko Borissov, a former prime minister, to form his third Cabinet. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BS) came in second with 27.1 % of the vote. The United Patriots, an alliance of three nationalist parties, finished in third place, winning 9.08 % and the ethnic Turks Party for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) is fourth with 8.98 %. If confirmed, the proclaimed anti-establishment Volya (Will) party also will enter parliament, scoring 4.16%. GERB didn’t win enough votes to govern alone however, and will likely seek to form a coalition government with some of the three smaller parties whose votes exceeded the 4 % minimum threshold to enter parliament.
At first look, the results look positive for the pro-western powers. The Eurosceptic party United Patriots are indeed in third place, and far off from the first two. GERB and BSP are seen as pro-European, and they are members of the large families, respectively, of EPP (The European People’s Party) and PES (Party of European Socialists) but both, GERB and BSP were severely criticized by Brussels during the rule of their Cabinets, mainly because of the extremely high level of corruption in Bulgaria. According to polling by the organisation Transparency International, half of Bulgarians polled say the government is doing a poor job of fighting corruption. Bribery, nepotism and oligarchy are quite common in the Balkan country. In a report of the Sofia-based Center for the Study of Democracy, more than one in five Bulgarians – 22.2 percent of the population, or 1.3 million citizens, admit having taken part in some form of corrupt practices in Bulgaria in 2015. The report also said Bulgaria’s position in terms of levels of corruption is worsening in comparison to other southeast European countries.
Despite the fact that the leader of GERB, Boyko Borisov, is a former bodyguard of the last communistic ruler of Bulgaria, Todor Jivkov, and the accusations that he is linked with the organized crime, the party is, at least on paper, following the European policy line. It is not the same situation with the second political power in Bulgaria however. Kornelia Ninova, the Socialist leader of the BSP, has run on a Eurosceptic and pro-Moscow line, promising to block European Union sanctions against Russia and opposing the EU’s free-trade agreement with Canada. She planned to replace the country’s 10% flat income tax with a progressive-rate system, and favoured a Russian-backed project to build a nuclear power plant.
The big question in Bulgaria at the moment is who will enter the new coalition government and under what conditions, in what will be Borisov’s third cabinet since 2009. The previous ally of GERB, the firmly pro- European Reformist Bloc failed to get beyond 4% electoral thresholds. This time the kingmakers look to be the nationalist United Patriots or the controversial businessman Vesselin Mareshki’s Volya (Will) party.
The “United Patriots” coalition is a cluster of nationalist and far-right parties consisting of Valeri Simeonov’s National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, Krassimir Karakachanov’s VMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization ) and Volen Siderov’s Ataka (Attack) party. The coalition is famous for its anti- immigrant rhetoric and is underlined as pro-Russian and anti-Turkish. The United Patriots are using similar tactics as other nationalist parties in Europe but in Bulgarian society, there is an idea that being pro-Russian is becoming more and more fashionable. The coalition agenda is conservative, xenophobic, pro-church, Bulgarian nationalist and explores the idea that Russia is “the natural ally” against Turkey and the ambitions of the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is portrayed as someone who wishes to restore the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over Bulgarians for 500 years.
Leader of the Volya (Will) party is Veselin Mareshki who is a self-promoting tycoon and local strongman that owns hundreds of pharmacies across Bulgaria. Mareshki, who describes himself as an “anti-establishment candidate like Donald Trump” preaches patriotism, strict immigration controls, friendlier relations with Moscow and, above all, the need to “sweep away the garbage” of a corrupt political establishment.
The options now facing Bulgaria are mixed and uncertain. It could be facing new early elections, a minority government or an unsustainable ruling combination of one of the first two game winners with “visible” or “invisible” participation from the others striving for power in the role of “balancer”. But despite all the options, one thing is clear: in the best case Bulgaria will continue to mark time and there is great danger of that biting back. Because after these elections the chances of a realistic, responsible and reform policy, with a vision for future and stable economic growth, may decrease. And the chances of draining the swamp of corruption may be zero.