Bulgaria’s March 2017 parliamentary elections: The winners and losers

If anyone may fairly be said to have lost Bulgaria’s March 2017 parliamentary elections, Zlatko Zdravkov would be an appropriate choice.

The name is not familiar to you, even though you regularly read about Bulgarian politics? Nor the electorate. Zdravkov was one of the 21 independent candidates, and with nearly all votes counted, had garnered a grand total of 84. This gains him the honour of having attracted the fewest votes of any contestant.

Boiko Borissov’s centre-right GERB got more than 1.14 million votes, and appears – again, with the count not quite yet at 100 per cent – to have been the only party to have passed the million-vote mark.

With GERB having gained the most votes, the constitution obliges the President to offer it the first of three possible mandates to seek to form a government.

Borissov intends doing so, though officially he is saying that he is awaiting official results. GERB’s leadership met on March 27 to discuss possible coalition partners, but nothing is likely to happen before next week. On Tuesday, Borissov leaves for Malta for a three-day European People’s Party meeting, though he is certain to keep in touch constantly with developments and statements at home.

Boiko Borissov, whose GERB party got the most votes in Bulgaria’s March 26 2017 elections and who is to embark on a bid to form a government.

Given that this new National Assembly will have five parliamentary groups instead of eight, and given GERB’s share of the vote, Borissov’s party may expect to have about 96 MPs, twelve more than it had after the October 2014 elections.

But Borissov, while the winner of the elections in the sense of getting the most votes and thus the mandate to form a government, should hardly fairly regard this as a glittering victory. The political melodrama that he precipitated by resigning because socialist-backed Roumen Radev won the November 2016 elections has ended with Borissov headed back into power, but with limited choices regarding a governing coalition, which at best that would be one fraught with fragility.

Whether Borissov emerges as a victor in government, and not just in the percentages in this past Sunday’s election, depends on what goals he sets for his administration and how achievable they will be in what is certain to be a difficult terrain of coalition politics. He and his top party lieutenants complained endlessly about the compromises they made in the course of the 2014/17 coalition government. Borissov is set for more of the same, and no one can confidently predict whether his third term as prime minister will actually not see him again resign before its end.

Still, two of the partners that he adopted in 2014 and that so annoyed him are gone from this Parliament – the Reformist Bloc and the socialist breakaway ABC that was founded by Georgi Purvanov. Borissov will have the nationalist United Patriots, his most likely coalition partner, to blame in the future, as he has laid blame at its door in the past.

The elections that Borissov precipitated were not won by Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Kornelia Ninova, in spite of her stated confidence beforehand and her insistence that Radev’s victory had been the beginning of a new red wave.

But her enemies within the party may not be well-placed to immediately move to topple Ninova, who was elected BSP leader in May 2016 and eliminated some of the party old guard from the BSP MP candidate lists.

Partly because of a significantly increased percentage of the vote and partly because there will be five and not eight parliamentary groups this time around, Ninova may be expected to have about 79 MPs, about double the size of the BSP’s caucus in October 2014. She may have lost the elections, but she lost them credibly. Now, however, Ninova can afford to lose nothing else.

Kornelia Ninova, leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party.

Practically certain to remain an opposition party, Ninova’s BSP will remain in permanent campaign mode – in recent years, not unusual for almost every Bulgarian political party – with an eye to the next parliamentary elections, quite possibly ones that will be ahead-of-term.

The nationalist United Patriots, unlike in the 2016 presidential elections, this time around did not prove to be greater than the sum of its parts. It is expected to end up with a few fewer seats than the combined number of the Patriotic Front and Ataka in the previous National Assembly.

That it did not do better is surprising. Far-right parties in Bulgaria generally have not matched the performances of their counterparts elsewhere in the European Union, but ahead of the March 26 vote, the United Patriots had much going for them. Opinion polls show Bulgarians as largely opposed to migrants, and during the election campaign, interference by Turkey – a traditional signature issue for the “patriots” – was a talking point for days on end.

The campaign also saw the most prominent roles played by two of the United Patriots’ co-leaders, Valeri Simeonov and Krassimir Karakachanov. Ataka’s Volen Siderov was on the campaign trail and had television adverts, but was less front and centre, perhaps a strategic move given the controversies that have surrounded him. It is questionable whether on its own, Ataka would have returned to Parliament. As part of the United Patriots, presumably all that was expected of Siderov was for him to deliver his hard-core base. That base may itself have shrunk.

It is little wonder that on March 27, Simeonov told Bulgarian National Television, “I am somewhat disappointed, we expected more”.

He said that it was “not certain” whether the United Patriots would participate in a government if offered to do so by GERB or whether the formula of support in Parliament without seats in the Cabinet would be repeated.

It may also be that Simeonov is too canny to indulge in the vice of so many Bulgarian politicians, negotiating through the media.

Should the next governing coalition prove to be GERB-United Patriots, one of its principal vulnerabilities would be that the “patriots” are effectively a tripartite alliance, with all the potential troubles that means. Siderov and Simeonov were politically estranged for some years, in the past. Siderov discreetly lent support to Borissov’s 2009 government, but they had a falling-out too.

It will be one thing for a GERB-United Patriots coalition to survive, in terms of relations between the two partners. It will another if the alliance within the nationalist coalition disintegrates amid acrimony and policy differences, most particularly on working with GERB and Borissov.

Can they continue to sing in chorus? Karakachanov, Siderov and Simeonov, the ‘United Patriots’.

Simeonov was asked a question along these lines, by BNT. Of his “patriot” partners, Simeonov said: “We get along well, but life is a complex thing”.

As was expected, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, while returning to Parliament, has lost to an extent and gained nothing. It is expected to have fewer seats in the new National Assembly, and also appears destined for opposition – though the possibility of quiet deals with Borissov’s people on some items of legislation can hardly be ruled out. Ninova, on the campaign trail, pointed this out – that while Borissov was insisting that he would not take the MRF into a coalition government, the GERB leader and former prime minister had a track record of discreet conversations with the party.

Mustafa Karadaya, leader of the MRF.

DOST, in these elections the most controversial player because of the Turkish factor, got less than three per cent, serving – as had been forecast – to take away votes from the MRF but to achieve nothing else, beyond numbers that suggest it may remain as a contestant in at least one more election.

Vesselin Mareshki, whose Volya party project is to become the fifth parliamentary group in the 44th National Assembly, was certainly ready on Monday to negotiate via the media. In fact, to let it be known that he would like to be Prime Minister.

Mareshki, who got just over the four per cent treshold and will have about 11 MPs, clearly sees himself in a key role in a coalition government deal. A role for Mareshki is not inconceivable – Borissov will need the comfort of more support in the National Assembly – but it is hardly probable that the first meeting of a new cabinet will see the cut-price pharmaceuticals and fuels businessman at the head of the table.

His shopping list, meanwhile, was a considerable one. While for himself he wanted nothing as lowly as a cabinet portfolio, Mareshki told reporters that areas where Volya was “strongest” included agriculture, tourism, energy and foreign policy.

Vesselin Mareshki, leader of the Volya party.

Mareshki may be in a position to make deals, but hardly the ones he is talking about. Like the United Patriots, he has not succeeded in making any gains on his support in the 2016 presidential elections. In politics, as in the private sector, the absence of growth is loss. And, as noted, while Borissov may like a deal that sees support – perhaps on a periodic, case-by-case, basis – from Mareshki, no one is more likely than Borissov to recall the tribulations that may accompany tripartite alliances (apart, maybe, from the BSP).

After this come those parties and coalitions that failed to return to Parliament, or obscure ones that did not get in.

The Reformist Bloc’s implosion is complete, and may be added to the long list of the prices paid for the internal fractiousness traditional to the centre-right stream in Bulgarian politics.

The coalition that competed in these elections with the Reformist Bloc name (in an odd coalition with the hitherto marginal Glas Naroden) was merely a rump of the entity that entered Borissov’s government in 2014.

Its voters had several choices this time around: Radan Kanev’s breakaway New Republic coalition, former justice minister Hristo Ivanov’s pro-judicial reform Yes Bulgaria, and – for those nervous about none of the three getting in and their votes being “wasted” – strategically voting against the BSP by casting a ballot for GERB.

The Reformist Bloc-Glas Naroden coalition came the closest to the four per cent threshold, at 3.06 per cent, according to the tally with 99.98 per cent of votes counted. Ivanov’s Yes Bulgaria got 2.88 per cent, outdoing the predictions of many pollsters, while Kanev’s New Republic got 2.48 per cent.

The Reformist Bloc-Glas Naroden coalition result as the “strongest” most likely can be ascribed to brand-name recognition, while the others were less recognisable to voters. Kanev’s New Republic coalition may have lost a few votes to the obscure but similarly named National Republic party that registered for these elections.

After the elections were over, some of the politicians from these parties and coalitions were talking about unity, as some of them had been in desultory fashion before them.

Kanev, most recognised as leader of the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria party before founding New Republic ahead of the March 2017 elections, resigned on Monday as leader of the New Republic and the DSB.

His resignation was an “apology” to the right-wing voters who now would not be represented in the next National Assembly, he said, while also saying that he would be remaining in politics.

“It is very important for the right-wing to be united,” Kanev said. Indeed, that bloc of voters, who either had held their noses and ticked the box for GERB or who had put their faith in the hopes of one of the three reformist parties, all could do the arithmetic – the sum of votes for the three comes to about eight per cent, and if those voters who defected to GERB are added in, certainly more.

The future may seem them compete individually again. The yearning among ordinary Bulgarians for judicial reform and anti-corruption for which Ivanov took up the banner will not go away, and the months and years – whatever it may prove to be – will give that party time to build up public awareness of itself. Ivanov may not want a merger with the other rump Reformist Bloc parties (he does not see his own as one) and like those who voted for Yes Bulgaria, may need to be persuaded of their sincerity to the cause. And, of course, the same principle may apply with regard to the other parties.

As noted, DOST – though never a formal parliamentary group in the previous parliamentary group, it had MPs, formerly with the MRF – will not return to the National Assembly.

Recent political history has a trail of corpses of breakaways from larger parties, and practically every Parliament has seen such a breakaway from one or another party. This too was the fate on Sunday of the ABC-Movement 21 coalition, an electoral alliance of two parties that were splinters from the BSP.

Perhaps the biggest losers in this election melodrama – which, pending a deal on a government, is far from over – have been the Bulgarian people. The electorate has gone round the roundabout and when the spinning wheel stops, likely will slightly groggily the face a variation of the same government, the status quo standing firmly in place. At best, they may look on the expected coming government, and think that the alternative could have been worse.

About 2.5 per cent of Bulgarians voted “I don’t support anyone”, a signal that all the Bulgarian political parties are losers. But who cares for the fate of politicians when it is the fate of the people they are meant to serve that matters, and who in coming elections may find that option on the ballot paper an increasingly attractive one?

  • A timeline of key political events in Bulgaria between 2007 and 2017 is available here.




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.