On 4 April 2021 or in 4 days, Bulgarian citizens will vote for a new Parliament. Unusual elections, considering Bulgarians have been protesting against Boyko Borissov’s government for 8 months and Borissov did everything possible to avoid early elections, which means these are the first parliamentary elections organized by a government led by Boyko Borissov. I have written an article for Res Publica about the incredibly high stakes which was published earlier today. I republish it here with the permission of the editors.
Parliamentary Elections in Bulgaria: High Stakes, Uncertain Future
The regular parliamentary elections in Bulgaria scheduled for 4 April 2021 are of pivotal importance for Bulgaria’s rule of law and democracy. Bulgaria’s deep state is on the brink of a precipice — Bulgarian citizens have protested against the rampant corruption of Boyko Borissov’s third government and General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev for nearly eight months, demanding their resignation and early elections since July last year.
In August 2020, opinion polls showed that public disapproval of Borissov himself was 68%, 62% of Bulgarian citizens supported the protests and 58.9% of Bulgarians demanded the resignation of the government — revealing numbers which illustrate how angry Bulgarians were with the corruption at the highest ranks of government. In October 2020, Borissov’s government received a slap from no other than the European Parliament which adopted a highly critical resolution regarding the rule of law decay and human rights abuses in Bulgaria. This illustrated that the assaults against the rule of law in Bulgaria, which had previously been highlighted by reputable indexes and reports, had already become too visible for the EU to ignore.
Yet, Borissov’s government has been stubbornly refusing to resign, heading for regular elections instead. How high are the stakes this time and what does the future hold?
How to prevent early elections at any price: Borissov’s playbook
Borissov and his GERB party pulled every trick out of the bag to prevent the early elections that the citizens had started asking for since last July, which only showed how much he feared losing power once and for all. His immense panic is even more discernable considering his previous two governments had resigned early amidst protests and scandals relatively minor in comparison to the current state of affairs.
First, Borissov employed his standard weapon — populism. “GERB has built as much as all previous Prime Ministers taken together. Is that why we should resign?,” wondered Borissov in a livestreamed video message shot in front of an icon of Virgin Mary in July 2020. “I have built more highways than Todor Zhivkov” and “If we resign, the country will fall apart” were other arguments he put forward to attempt to earn back the citizens’ trust.
But anger soared, so Borissov had to rely on another well-known method — he asked four of his ministers to resign. Not just any four, but those often perceived by the opposition as protégés of Borissov’s behind-the-curtain partner Delyan Peevski. This time Borissov’s ulterior motive seemed to be to try to persuade the crowd that he had nothing in common with Peevski who independent media have described as one of the puppeteers of Bulgaria’s deep state.
Desperate times call for desperate measures
As the move with forced resignations did not have the desired effect and only fueled further discontent and protests, Borissov pulled out the smoking gun of any autocrat — a “new” Constitution allegedly “ensuring the best for the people”… except for it was neither new nor friendly to the demands of the protests. In essence, Borissov’s last minute proposal was a mish-mash cooked with 90% of the current Constitution turned upside down and 10% exotic ideas violating the separation of powers, such as giving the Prosecutor’s Office the right to legislative initiative.
Borissov used this constitutional proposal to buy time — he submitted it for a review by the Venice Commission, the body which advises the Council of Europe on constitutional matters, even though leading experts in constitutional law did not see any merit in the draft. When the highly negative opinion by the Venice Commission saw the light of day in November 2020, Borissov silently withdrew his alleged revolutionary proposal with relief and without any noise. He had succeeded in preventing early elections.
GERB’s nightmare of fair(er) elections
One can reasonably suspect that the main reason why Borissov did not want to resign and pave the way for early elections was merely technical, but, as it is well- known, the devil lies in the details. Had Borissov’s government resigned, Bulgaria’s President from the opposition would have appointed a caretaker government. Its principal task would have been organizing the parliamentary elections. Yet, considering the protests against him, Borissov preferred the alternative — survive at any price until regular elections, so that his own government could organize them.
This perceived technicality brings us to the next relevant question — how fair would these elections be having in mind how high the stakes are? In Bulgaria, the majority of citizens is convinced that our elections are traditionally falsified. A Eurobarometer survey from 2018, for instance, showcased that 72% of Bulgarians worried that the final results of elections were manipulated and 81% of Bulgarians feared that votes were being bought or sold — numbers significantly above the EU average.
What factors trigger these concerns?
Mihail Konstantinov, an expert in elections seen as close to the government, has argued that 18% of the electoral register comprised of phantom voters — these potentially vote from the underworld. Bulgaria is traditionally plagued by rumors and even testimonies about buying votes, too. After the last EU elections, for example, citizens overtly admitted to investigative journalists that they had received between 15 to 25 EUR to vote a certain way — no consequences followed.
This year, Borissov’s former right hand Tsvetan Tsvetanov who used to be responsible for GERB’s electoral campaigns but quit has made allegations about GERB’s electoral manipulations, including abuses of the vulnerable Roma minority. No competent authority took an interest in these serious red flags. Even worse, historically, election protocols have been falsified, but courts turned a blind eye — citizens still remember how in 2015, Varna’s administrative court ruled that even though a forensic analysis showed all signatures on a protocol pertaining to municipal elections were forged, the election result in question was still valid.
The so-called “controlled vote” is also an issue. When Borissov came to power, state administration comprised of 440,000 people. Data seems to be blurred in mystery on purpose, but according to reports Borissov’s governments significantly increased or even doubled Bulgaria’s state administration, which means these people are inclined to vote for GERB because often they get employed due to GERB’s blessings.
Bulgarians also worry that they are prevented from voting on purpose. There are more Bulgarians working abroad than in Bulgaria (1.5 million v. 1 million), but voting from abroad is notoriously difficult. To this day, voting at a distance is not possible because of political unwillingness. There are not enough polling stations either which makes Bulgarians living abroad incur unfair costs — spend money on travel and accommodation, waste time queueing excessively, etc.
Media manipulations and crooked polls
Of course, in Bulgaria, the parties of the status quo also fight for the hearts and minds of those who cannot be controlled easily through more covert means such as deception. For once, pro-government media publish tarnishing materials of questionable credibility about the opposition — citizens are currently swamped with black PR articles against opposition parties which are not in the current parliament, but hope to make it in the next, such as the “Democratic Bulgaria” coalition and the “Stand Up! Thugs Should Go!” coalition.
A related tool of not so benign deceit is the election polls. To illustrate, in 2016, just weeks before the presidential election, a poll by Market Links, an agency specialized in social research perceived as close to the government, concluded that the difference between Rumen Radev (current President) and Tsetska Tsacheva (Borissov’s nomination) at the second round would be less than 1%. However, the actual difference between them after the vote was 23.31% — a major discrepancy which puts to question the methodology and the integrity of those conducting the poll.
This time around voters in Bulgaria have once again been inundated with diverse contradictory polls with debatable credibility, which made Alexey Pamporov from the Bulgarian Academy of Science publish a highly critical piece arguing that data was overtly mixed with manipulations, thus highlighting severe methodological deficiencies.
Borissov’s obsession with preventing early elections at all costs, the series of red flags which may compromise the fairness of the elections, and the media manipulations with the help of servile sociologists we are witnessing only evidence fear. However, fear is a bad advisor. The more GERB clings to power like a hungry dog protects a bone, the more citizens become vigilant and motivated to take the bone away from them.
Due to the protests, many Bulgarians have woken up which means that new players will be part of the next Parliament. Even the friendliest polls to Borissov’s GERB show not only that this party will not be able to form a government alone, but possibly will not be even part of a coalition as its allies are losing speed and relatively new players are gaining support. The next Parliament will surely be fragmented, but GERB’s role will diminish, too. Citizens see better what damage GERB has done to the country’s democracy, rule of law, and economy.
In opposition circles, there is already talk that the new Parliament will be short-lived: its main purpose may as well be to carry out a reform of Bulgarian election law, so that fairer elections can be ensured next time around. No matter what the future holds, at this stage it seems clear that Borissov’s autocracy has been pushed out of its comfort zone, which is not bad news, after all.