Bulgaria’s elections: The ups and downs

The story of the numbers in Bulgaria’s May 2013 parliamentary elections, once a look is taken at the records of recent elections, either may confirm trends or challenge some perceptions about just what those numbers mean about the performances of parties – or, for that matter, the behaviour of Bulgaria’s voters.

After the polls closed in this year’s (first?) parliamentary elections, from every armchair in every television studio and lounge it was claimed that voter turnout was the lowest ever.

That is only partly true. According to Central Election Commission figures, voter turnout in the Bulgarian national parliamentary elections on May 12 was 51.33 per cent.

Certainly, it represents a downturn if looking at previous parliamentary elections, but is not the lowest in any vote in post-Zhivkov Bulgaria.

In parliamentary elections, voter turnout has been on a fairly steady downward curve, with some bumps. In 1991, it was 83.9 per cent; in 1994, 75.3 per cent; in 1997, 62.9 per cent; but in 2001, 67 per cent; in 2005, 55.8 per cent; in 2009, 60.2 per cent.

But, as noted, that is just parliamentary elections. Like their counterparts elsewhere in the European Union, Bulgarians hardly flock to the polls to choose their representatives in the European Parliament. There have been only two such elections so far. In 2007, turnout was 28.6 per cent and in 2009, just a few weeks before the parliamentary elections, 37.49 per cent.

The 2011 presidential elections, which went into two rounds, produced figures not dissimilar to those of May 2013’s parliamentary elections: 51.83 per cent at the first round, 48.04 per cent at the second – the latter lower figure presumably representing the absence of those inspired by neither Ivailo Kalfin nor Rossen Plevneliev as their head of state of choice.

But regarding voter turnout, the real record was set in the farce that was the January 2013 national referendum on the future of nuclear power in Bulgaria (read: Belene) where, going by official figures, turnout was all of 20.22 per cent.

Spoilt for choice

Bulgaria’s Central Election Commission does not (in translation) use the term “spoilt ballots” but rather “invalid ballots”.

Invalid ballots are not an accurate measure of protest or disillusionment. Ballots can be invalid for a number of reasons, going by Central Election Commission records – simple errors, marking more than one ballot box, not using the correct colour ink.

Establishing the precise proportion of protest spoilt ballots among the invalid ballots is an impossible task. Further, the situation is not entirely suitable to provide a basis for comparison, because the rules of voting have changed over the years. This year, for instance, only a cross in blue ink within the square on the ballot was acceptable.

That said, in contrast to what may be expected in a year of bitter disillusionment among some with the antics of Bulgaria’s politicians, the number of spoilt ballots is in fact down.

In the June 2005 parliamentary elections, there were 99 616; in July 2009, there were 96 856; and on May 12, 90 047. Then again, consider these as proportions of overall voter turnout, and the picture changes, taking into account that voter turnout in 2013 was less than in 2005 and 2009.

Fewer or less

At their news conferences after the May 12 elections, parties have been unseemly in their desperation to persuade their audiences about their performances compared to previous elections.

This, by the way, is why this article is including mainly comparisons of only the past three elections, given that the Boiko Borissov/GERB phenomenon dates only from the 2009 national parliamentary elections, while on top of that, the number and identity of parties competing in the various elections has varied widely – to make things even more complicated.

Within this broader narrative, consider the phenomenon of Volen Siderov and his Ataka ultra-nationalists.

It was just a week before the 2005 parliamentary elections that just one polling agency projected that Ataka, hitherto written off as just another fly-by-night get-your-hands-on-state-subsidies adventurers, would win seats. But those pollsters were right.

In June 2005, Ataka won 8.1 per cent of the vote – in flesh-and-blood terms, 296 848 Bulgarians bought the vile poison, sorry, patriotic stance, that Siderov was selling.

In 2006, Siderov ran second in the second round of the presidential elections. He got just more than 24 per cent of the votes then, with 649 481 Bulgarians backing him. This may be qualified by the strong suspicion that they were anti-Bulgarian Socialist Party voters who did not want Georgi Purvanov to win a second term in office as head of state. In turn, of course, that Purvanov got three out of four votes in that second round is an indication of just how many centre-right voters grimly and firmly held their noses to keep Siderov from that rather nice desk in 2 Dondoukov Boulevard.

In 2009, Ataka got 395 707 votes (9.4 per cent) and in May 2013, 258 481 (7.29 per cent). Again, all for this year’s vote for Ataka being negatively affected by competition from splinters from Ataka, to say nothing of the scandals around Siderov and his cohorts during the terms of the 40th and 41st National Assemblies.

IN 2011, Siderov tried again in the presidential race. Among an initial field of 18 candidates, he was eliminated at the first round, getting 122 466 votes, or 3.64 per cent.

Turkey trot

As to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, as The Sofia Globe reported earlier this week, in May 2013 it won almost half of the votes cast abroad – a proportion similar to the number of voters who cast their ballots in Turkey, out of all countries in which polling took place.

But that figure, while still an indication of the party’s capacity for organisation, is down by 10 per cent on the MRF performance in the vote abroad in 2009.

Overall, the MRF won 467 400 votes in 2005 (12.8 per cent); 542 381 in 2009 (14 per cent); and 400 466 in May 2013 (11.3 per cent). Again, like Ataka, the MRF now has rivals fishing in the same pond, mainly in the party formed around Ataka splinter leader Kassim Dal.


Roumen Petkov, a veteran BSP member and, as one of the Purvanov camp, a figure firmly pushed aside under socialist leader Sergei Stanishev, repeated after the May 12 vote that Stanishev again had proved himself to be the master of losing elections.

To a large degree, this is true.

Stanishev became leader of the BSP when Purvanov had to resign the socialist leadership on being elected head of state. The former Purvanov protégé took the party into a succession of parliamentary, municipal and other elections and in no case secured victory.

When Purvanov stood for a second term in 2006, he did so, technically, as an independent, not the candidate of the BSP. That denies Stanishev the claim of victory.

Similarly, in 2005, the BSP had the largest share of votes, but not enough to be decisive, which in turn spawned the Purvanov-brokered tripartite coalition.

In all other elections that matter – parliamentary, for the European Parliament, for major cities – the BSP suffered defeat at the hands of Borissov’s GERB. Even though Borissov is in no position now to win parliamentary approval for a government after the May 2013 elections, GERB still won more votes than the BSP.

Further, there is an overall drop in numbers voting for the BSP, but not percentages.

In 2005, the BSP got 1 129 196 votes; in 2009, 748 114; and in May 2013, 942 541, meaning that this time out, Stanishev’s BSP again failed to surpass the psychological one-million barrier (through circumstances, getting to run the country may be some compensation).

The percentages, however, were: 2005, 21 per cent; 2009, 17.7 per cent; and in May 2013, 26.6 per cent. The percentages alone show a clear gain for the BSP under Stanishev. Yet again, still not the largest percentage.

GERB got the largest share in May 2013 but its shedding of votes has been the most significant. In July 2009, Borissov’s party got 39.7 per cent with 1 678 583 votes. In the Bulgaria after the winter political crisis of early 2013, GERB mustered 30.5 per cent with 1 081 605 votes.


This recitation of numbers may leave the brain buzzing, but even allowing for the changing line-up of contestants that affects overall election results, one political conclusion is clear.

Borissov, who on resigning sought a “credit of confidence” to return to office after the elections, won the largest share of votes but finds himself blocked on all sides, and for now, faces the prospect of heading the country’s best-supported political party denied the opportunity to govern.

Stanishev, heading the socialists, has improved his party’s performance, but without the satisfaction of getting more votes than Borissov’s party. A “victory”, if it is to take the form of the “programme government” of “experts” that the BSP leader talks about, will be only an opportunistic one, dependent on the two other parties that won seats. It is victory by default, the victory of the athlete who managed only a lagging silver but then steps up one place on the podium because the gold medal winner was caught doping.

The big picture from all these figures, especially if taking into account all the votes that went to parties and their voters that will not be represented in Parliament, is that this – inescapably – must go down as the election that everyone lost.

(Photo: David Hartman/sxc.hu)



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.