Bulgaria’s election spiral: what does the future hold?
– Radosveta Vassileva –
In an earlier article for the FBPE Blog, I raised awareness of the mass protests against the corruption of Boyko Borissov’s government and General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev which marked the year 2020 in Bulgaria. For months citizens were demanding both the resignation of the government and Ivan Geshev to no avail. Borissov pulled every possible trick out of his autocratic playbook to prolong the agony and wait for his regular term to end in early 2021. Since then, Bulgaria has seen three parliamentary elections (one regular and two snap elections) as well as a regular presidential election. Whereas the political future is uncertain, many Bulgarians are mild optimists because Borissov will not be part of this future no matter what it holds. This leaves space for much needed reforms and the dismantling of the autocracy built by Borissov’s close circle, including the removal of Geshev from office.
Bulgaria’s unattended rule of law crisis
Unlike other countries where the ruling elite undermines the rule of law, such as Hungary and Poland, Bulgaria is traditionally off the media radar. However, thanks to the mass protests of 2020, some international journalists woke up. Politico, one of the leading media in Brussels, overtly referred to Bulgaria as a ‘mafia state’ last year. Yet, Bulgaria did not transform into a mafia state overnight.
Since coming to power for the first time in 2009, Borissov engaged into deliberate attacks against the rule of law by capturing key institutions and removing checks and balances. Sadly, because he is a valued member of the European People’s Party (EPP), the most influential party on EU level, he got away with this.
When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, it did not fulfill the accession criteria on the rule of law. That is why, the EU Commission put it under a special mechanism – the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism – with which it assumed an obligation to help it catch up with other EU members. Yet, Borissov’s assaults against the rule of law were mysteriously marked as progress in the reports under this mechanism. As a result of these misleading reports, the EU Parliament felt confident that the situation in Bulgaria kept improving while, in fact, the opposite was unraveling. Unsurprisingly, Bulgaria plummeted in all reputable rankings – from the Corruption Perceptions Index to the Rule of Law Index.
The mass protests of 2020, however, served as a “Red Flag” for the EU Parliament which adopted a powerful resolution on the rule of law decay in Bulgaria in October 2020. In stark contrast, not only the EU Commission refused to reconsider its conclusions in these reports, but also turned a blind eye to the excessive violence at the protests, thus supporting Borissov’s autocracy until the very end.
The birth of hope
From the start of the protests, it was visible that Borissov would not resign under fear of objective investigations into his corruption. That is why, he relied on theater to attempt to appease protesting citizens, only fueling further discontent among civil society. First, he made a cabinet reshuffle. Second, similarly to Lukashenko in Belarus, he put forward an incompetent proposal for an allegedly new Constitution to pretend he was listening to the protests. Third, he targeted the opposition – we have more and more emerging evidence that hundreds of protesting citizens have been illegally surveilled and wiretapped. As mentioned above, some peaceful citizens were physically harassed, too.
The first ray of hope, however, came with the regular parliamentary elections in April 2021. While Borissov’s GERB party came in first, several new opposition parties also made it to parliament, making it impossible for Borissov to form a government, as it did not have the necessary majority in parliament. In its short existence, the national assembly which was elected at the time implemented vital amendments to election law to ensure fairer elections. However, as the opposition did not have the required seats to elect its own government, Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev dissolved this national assembly and appointed a caretaker government to organize snap parliamentary elections, as required by the Constitution.
Radev, a longstanding opponent of Borissov, appointed ministers who were independent of Borissov. This caretaker government was committed to exposing Borissov’s corruption and to organizing fairer elections. The snap parliamentary elections in July 2021 proved the efforts to curtail electoral manipulations had worked – GERB came in second and lost a significant part of its support. Unfortunately, on this occasion the opposition parties engaged in petty conflicts and arm-twisting, making it impossible to elect a regular government again.
As a result, a new caretaker government was appointed, and new snap elections were scheduled in November 2021 together with the regularly scheduled presidential elections. The results in both elections give some hope that reforms in Bulgaria are possible. The parliamentary elections were won by a brand-new party (called ‘Change Continues’) established by two of the caretaker ministers. Currently, this party is negotiating with other anti-Borissov parties and, at this stage, the chance for forming at least a short-term regular government seems high. Meanwhile, Radev won the second round of the presidential election against GERB’s candidate by nearly 35%, showing to what extent voters were tired of GERB.
Unfortunately, while Borissov and his close circle have been eliminated from the executive, they still control key institutions, which means that it will take a long time and effort to bring Bulgaria back to normal. This will require serious compromises by diverse opposition parties that have different priorities and constituencies.
Borissov’s strength currently comes from his influence on law enforcement authorities and secret services, which ensures his impunity and creates opportunities for harassment of the opposition. As the negotiations for a new government are under way, one may safely say that there seems to be an agreement on the necessity for removal of Ivan Geshev from office – a key figure in the terror machine built by GERB. However, those who are well-aware of Bulgaria’s rule of law challenges know that more profound changes in Bulgaria’s justice system are needed. Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office is a well-known nucleus of corruption that merits special attention and an in-depth reform. Measures to ensure judicial independence are also needed.
While it is too early for flamboyant optimism, it seems that Bulgaria has a chance to move in a better direction. Certainly, this scares Borissov and his protégé Ivan Geshev who have already proven they can go to extremes.
Article written by Dr Radosveta Vassileva