Bulgaria again at political crossroads after GERB victory in parliamentary elections

Tue 4 Oct 2022

Bulgaria again at political crossroads after GERB victory in parliamentary elections

Bulgarian Parliament in Sofia, 2016 (Flickr)

After almost all ballots were counted, it became clear that the centre-right GERB party led by its controversial leader Boyko Borissov won the Bulgarian general elections. However, making a coalition seems to become troublesome, which could have consequences for Europe.

GERB wins elections, PP runner-up

The exit poll had already predicted that GERB would win this election in Bulgaria. This prediction came true after almost all ballots were counted. The GERB party defeated its main challenger, We Continue the Change (PP), in these elections. The party led by Kiril Petkov formed the Bulgarian from October 2021 to June 2022. His party came second in these snap elections, which were called after a no-confidence vote by GERB defeated the government.

GERB's victory is most probably not a solution to the unprecedented political crisis in Bulgaria, where the last general elections were the third parliamentary elections since April 2021. This is especially because PP and GERB have repeatedly struggled to find common ground in the past. However, despite Petkov's refusal to govern with Borissov, they are now expected to rely on each other to form a governing coalition to prevent another snap election. The biggest stumbling block is corruption. While the PP is originally an anti-corruption party, GERB has been accused of years of corruption.

What does this result mean for Europe?

Should it come to cooperation, it will not be a bad prospect for Europe, and particularly for North Macedonia and Albania. GERB, despite its former status as a pro-Russian party, has positioned itself as pro-European in these elections. Borissov, who enjoyed close ties with Putin, said Bulgaria should follow the Euro-Atlantic course. The PP is prolific as a pro-European and pro-NATO party. Obviously, this prospect depends on resolving the country's political crisis and bringing stability to Bulgaria. The Russian invasion left the country struggling to manage ties with Russia, to which Bulgaria traditionally has close relations.

There are opportunities for North Macedonia and Albania to join the EU should GERB and PP cooperate. Petkov is one of the leading figures in Bulgarian politics who campaigned to lift the Bulgarian veto against Macedonian EU accession. Borissov, who was responsible for the veto policy against North Macedonia with his previous government, indicated back in November 2021 that GERB would change its attitude towards the neighbouring country based on the 2017 Friendship Treaty.  In the parliamentary vote for the "French proposal" in June 2022, both PP and GERB voted in favour, helping to secure the parliamentary majority. 

Conditioned pro-Europeanism

But to turn this prospect into policy, there are two conditions. First, GERB would have to cooperate with nemesis PP, or form a coalition with other parties that favour restoring ties between Sofia and Skopje. Another option for a pro-EU alliance is Democratic Bulgaria, but this is only a relatively small party. DPS, also advocated North Macedonia's accession to the EU. However, DPS may have an even more controversial reputation than GERB. Analysts considered DPS as a “radicalised” and “corruption-ridden” party. A coalition with both GERB and DPS could cause outrage in Bulgaria, where people already took to the streets to protest against corruption in the recent past.

Another option is the ultra-nationalist party Revival. A coalition with this party led by Kostadin Kostadinov would be inconsistent with Borissov's new pro-Western stance. However, the party doubled its votes in the preliminary results of the new elections compared to the 2021 results and is now considerable in size. The Revival party previously voted against the adoption of the French proposal, and its Eurosceptic stance is likely to create a new conundrum in relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

The second condition is that complying with the Friendship Treaty is crucial for North Macedonia-Bulgaria relations. With the recent adoption of the "French proposal", designed to move this process forward, acceptance and implementation of this amendment is essential. Part of this agreement is for Bulgaria to allow both North Macedonia and Albania to join the EU. This does not only depend on Bulgaria. North Macedonia's domestic politics are bitterly divided over the concluded deal, and two referendum proposals were recently submitted by opposition parties VMRO DPMNE and Levica to undermine the Friendship Treaty.

Borissov’s difficult task

It is now up to Borissov to form a coalition government in the difficult Bulgarian political climate, partly caused by his own leadership. Borissov staying on as leader seems to be the biggest obstacle to a possible GERB-PP government. Simultaneously, other alternatives appear to be undesirable choices, both for Borissov's tarnished credibility and for the future of a pro-European Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Albania.  Voters in Bulgaria are increasingly disillusioned, and confidence in politics is further damaged with yet another election. Therefore, a new coalition is crucial for political stability in Bulgaria.

Author: Mathieu Neelen

Sources: AlJazeera, BalkanInsight1, BalkanInsight2, Euobserver, Euronews, Politico1, Politico2

Photo: Flickr