Bulgaria’s 2019 European elections: Winners and losers

With all but a few votes remaining to be counted in Bulgaria’s May 2019 European Parliament elections, the picture of those who have won and who has lost is clear; and that even some winners are losers.

The most obvious winner is Prime Minister Boiko Borissov and his centre-right GERB party, ending with a decisive lead over the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, a massive recovery from GERB’s damaged poll numbers at the start of the campaign, when the controversy over cut-price real estate acquisitions by ruling majority politicians had taken a serious toll.

GERB’s recovery to surge to top spot is overwhelmingly due to Borissov, who – while denying that he was campaigning – hit the road to dominate the news cycle, portraying himself as a dynamic government leader, all the while denying the charges of the BSP that he was using state resources to campaign. These charges, formally lodged at the Central Election Commission by the BSP, were rejected by the commission.

Borissov also made it clear that even if his party got fewer votes than the BSP – and mid-campaign, polls suggested that GERB and Kornelia Ninova’s party were running neck-and-neck – he would not resign from government. That move effectively made the May 26 election about choosing the 17 Bulgarian members of the European Parliament, and not – as Ninova had wanted – a referendum on whether Borissov’s government should remain in office.

However, had Borissov got a smaller vote share than the BSP, it would have been difficult for him to evade the argument that arose after the May 2014 EP election, when the BSP was thrashed and the events that would lead to the “Oresharki” administration’s resignation were set in train. In 2019, he dodged this bullet through GERB’s victory; and in any case, his coalition does not have quite the same difficulty that the “Oresharski” one did, the presence of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms to decree that the game was up.

It is not coincidental that among Borissov’s first comments on the outcome of the European Parliament elections highlighted that GERB had held all of Bulgaria’s major cities. He clearly is mindful of the contest that awaits at the end of October in the mayoral and municipal elections.

Though GERB has retained its top spot in May 2019, and its percentage is similar to that in the European Parliament elections five years ago, in absolute terms the party’s voter numbers are down, by several tens of thousands. A number of factors could be at play, one indeed being the damage from what the Bulgarian media persists in calling “apartmentgate” (the Bulgarian media habitually append the -gate suffix to all controversies, whether large or trivial, in obvious ignorance of the nature of the Watergate scandal). Another factor could be a defection of GERB voters to the reformist Democratic Bulgaria coalition.

In the 2017 National Assembly election, GERB did well to press-gang former Reformist Bloc voters and those that might have opted for Hristo Ivanov’s Yes Bulgaria coalition, by portraying any vote for anything other than GERB as one wasted in the effort to keep the BSP from power.

This time, Democratic Bulgaria exceeded even its own expectations. Radan Kanev, number one on its MEP candidate list, had given an interview before May 26 talking about how Democratic Bulgaria was building up momentum in the long run. On election night, Kanev openly admitted that the coalition’s result had exceeded its expectations. The boost of May 2019 could provide some credible impetus for Democratic Bulgaria in the years remaining to the National Assembly elections scheduled for 2021 (less so the presidential elections later the same year, which barring unforeseen circumstances will be the customary GERB-BSP straight fight at the second round).

BSP leader Ninova at least did not resort to the custom of her predecessor Sergei Stanishev, who through all of the party’s electoral defeats tried to persuade journalists that, if one simply looked at things correctly (usually involving voodoo with numbers) the party had not lost, but won.

At her May 27 news conference, Ninova made a fairly direct reference to the fact that she would not be emulating Stanishev in this regard, though she did not fail to point out that in absolute terms, the BSP was alone – among those above the threshold – in increasing its numbers of voters.

Comparisons, however, are questionable. It is true that the BSP gained a significantly higher percentage than it had in the 2014 European Parliament elections, and rose from 424 037 votes five years ago to more than 450 000 this time.

However, the party has hardly done much better than in the 2017 National Assembly elections, even allowing for the fact that a comparison between the results of a National Assembly election and a European Parliament one is not entirely equitable. In 2017, the BSP got a 27 per cent vote share. That represented 955 490 votes. But the comparison weakens slightly, especially in the context of turnout; in 2017, GERB got more than 1.1 million votes, compared with more than 574 400 in 2019.

Ninova, who has not achieved building BSP support in the three years that she has been the party leader, gave a nod to reality by opening the way for a leadership contest, albeit one in which she will seek a fresh mandate. Her May 2016 victory in the race to be BSP leader was not an easy one, and her chair has been rather vigorously shaken since then. Among all five groupings said to have won European Parliament seats, the BSP and Ninova are the most obvious losers, not in numeric terms – however interpreted – but in failing in Ninova’s primary strategic goal, to lever Borissov out of power.

No analysis need devote much time to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, third-placed in 2019, as it was in 2014, albeit this time also with notably fewer votes. It followed its customary pattern on the campaign trail, and ignored all the attacks about the presence of highly controversial figure Delyan Peevski in number two spot on its candidate list. Whether Peevski will take up his seat this time, having declined it five years ago, is largely moot. The one place in Bulgaria’s landscape where his presence is not pervasive is the chamber of the National Assembly. In May 2019, the MRF neither – in reality – particularly lost or gained. But in sum, it emerged a winner, precisely by not significantly losing anything; perhaps a seat. Like all other major parties, it is no doubt holding itself in reserve for the October municipal elections.

Krassimir Karakachanov’s ultra-nationalist VMRO and its hardliner lead candidate Angel Dzhambazki emerged as winners twofold. First, in getting well over the threshold – current informal calculations suggest that it may get two seats. Second, it emerged the winner among the three squabbling parties that make up the United Patriots. Near-complete results show Valeri Simeonov’s ticket with a mere 1.15 per cent and Volen Siderov’s Ataka with an even more piffling 1.08 per cent.

The result for VMRO and the other ultra-nationalist parties was largely predictable, first because it long has been obvious that divided – as they are – the United Patriots’ electoral capacity is limited. Further, however, Karakachanov has the profile afforded him as a deputy prime minister, and Dzhambazki, however unpalatable if not outright repugnant his views, is an effective campaigner and experienced politician, who did not allow his previous term at the European Parliament to keep him from coverage in the local Bulgarian media.

One should not, however, declare the ultra-nationalists to be anything of a spent force in Bulgaria, nor breathe a sigh of relief that their brand of politics has no greater presence. The turnout to vote for parties of this ilk was not dissimilar to that in 2017, when it propelled them into government.

Whether the predictable proof that individually they are less than the sum of their parts will produce a result, apart from persisting as part of the governing coalition, is questionable. After the May 2019 election was over, they were as beastly about each other as they had been before it.

To return to the Democratic Bulgaria coalition, what they have mainly won in this May election was a challenge. A challenge to come up with a clear message to broaden their electoral base beyond its relatively well-off, educated, urban base. Further, if as Kanev has said it is true that Democratic Bulgaria has shown itself to be the genuine alternative to the GERB-BSP-MRF axis, the party would have to make it clear – including to itself – what its stance would be on coalition policy after the National Assembly elections. Given that Democratic Bulgaria has quite the complement of former Reformist Bloc politicians, perhaps they may remember what a decision on going into a government coalition brought them in 2014. Democratic Bulgaria are definite winners, with a lot to lose.



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.