Bulgaria’s electoral rumble – the final tally

by Anton Stoyanov

 

After a year of elections, the dust has finally settled in the Bulgarian political landscape. Over the last few weeks, citizens headed to the polls to elect both a new parliament (for the third time this year), and a president. 

 

Two surprises in one

On the one hand, the parliamentary elections ended up with a surprise winner – the newly formed “We continue the change”, led by former caretaker ministers Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev who rode a wave of admiration thanks to their anti-corruption efforts and effective management of the country over a 3-month period earlier this year. They were followed by former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s GERB party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms who came in 3rd and the Bulgarian Socialist Party, There is Such a People, Democratic Bulgaria and another newcomer – the far-right “Revival”.

Meanwhile, the surprise in the presidential elections wasn’t that much about who won – but rather how one-sided it ended up being. Incumbent president Rumen Radev secured nearly 50% of the vote in the first round and then went on to take home over 66% in the 2nd.

These two events have spelled a monumental setback for former PM Borissov and have made it painfully apparent that his party has no easy way of getting back into government in the near future.

 

A new way of doing politics

“We continue the change’s” pitch was to forge a new path of doing politics in Bulgaria – and that’s what they started doing in the first days after the election. Over the last couple of weeks, they have hosted numerous roundtables with their potential coalition partners – the Bulgarian Socialist Party, There is Such a People and Democratic Bulgaria, that have been streamed live on YouTube, providing a bright example of how the country’s political elite can start to bridge the gaps between each other and foster dialogue.

This new approach, combined with the extremely heavy toll that the past year has taken on many of Bulgaria’s parties, makes it all the more likely that this time, coalition negotiations will succeed. The enormous confidence that was placed in “We continue the change” makes it unthinkable for other political actors to sabotage the negotiations as that might result in an immediate collapse of their voter base.

 

Walking a knife’s edge

Nonetheless, despite the optimistic outlook for forming a government at the moment, thinking that it would last long could be a mistake. Bulgaria has never been governed by a coalition as large as this, comprising of 4 parties, and its politicians have never had to deal with such a fragmented parliament with an absence of a clear “large” party.

Healthy dialogue between the coalition partners continuing into the next few months and years would be crucial for the government’s survival – but even if it does eventually collapse, before the termination of its mandate some 4 years down the line, it would have been an excellent attempt at strengthening and bolstering Bulgaria’s democratic credentials.

 

Bulgaria – a hub for healthcare experiment

One of the main challenges that the new government will have to deal with is the COVID-19 pandemic. Bulgaria has the lowest vaccination rate in the EU, standing at 29% of adults being fully vaccinated (a number that is highly unlikely to be true, considering the massive number of fake vaccination certificates that are reportedly going around) and it is unlikely that this will be easy to change.

A full year of COVID-19 denialism and vaccine skepticism by all major political actors, combined with a complete lack of trust in institutions and an (un)healthy dose of disinformation coming from foreign sources has made it incredibly difficult for citizens to be convinced of the benefits of getting a jab. This has resulted in an unimaginable strain on the country’s healthcare system and has forced all 4 parties that are likely to make up the coalition to seek mutually- agreeable solutions.

Among the priorities that they have agreed upon are a ramp-up of the vaccination process (much to the chagrin of the far-right “Revival” which managed to surpass the 4% threshold mainly thanks to its antivaxx rhetoric), a multi-point revamp of funding and cash allocation for different parts of the healthcare system, both in the way that hospitals are managed, as well as how their staff is paid, digitalization of patient data, as well as a wholesale reform of emergency care.

Of course, at the moment, this simply looks like a wishlist. But Bulgaria’s abysmal handling of COVID-19 and the apparent near-collapse of its entire healthcare system has given policymakers an opportunity for a major rethink of how to move forward – and with it come many opportunities to potentially shape a brand-new approach to health management.

 

As RPP we will be closely monitoring and analyzing the coming months in Bulgarian politics. Do not hesitate to contact us should you seek support in navigating through the newest developments.

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