by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgarians face general, presidential elections amid worsening Covid-19 crisis

During 2021 Bulgarians have so far gone to the polls twice, in April and in July. On both occasions the sort of parliament they elected was so split that it failed to form a government. Consequently, the president, in keeping with his Constitutional prerogatives, had to set up a caretaker administration to handle the day-to-day running of the state. Now, on 14 November, Bulgarians will have to go to the ballots again, for the third time this year. They will not only have to choose their MPs, but also a new head of state, as President Rumen Radev's term in office draws to a close.

Predictably, the two-in-one elections bring yet more uncertainty to Bulgarian politics. For one, the political scene at the moment seems no less fragmented than it was earlier in 2021, a direct result of Boyko Borisov's 10+ years in power during which time Bulgaria's inchoate post-Communist democracy and its agencies were almost completely stifled by Borisov's one-man show that encouraged corruption, nepotism and graft. On the other hand, the fact that the general and the presidential elections are very different in their structure (the general election is conducted proportionately whereas Bulgarians will have to vote in a first-past-the-post ballot for president to be followed by a second round in case there is no outright winner) will likely bring even more confusion to what is already a very confused Bulgarian voter base.

Consider the general election first as it is in a way of greater significance for the future of this country. To understand who is standing and why, who are the main players, and why the majority of Bulgarians are skeptical one needs to look at the background.

At the April ballot the political status quo was disrupted by a wild horse, a complete newcomer to the world of Bulgarian politics: Slavi Trifonov. Trifonov is a media personality who has moderated a David Letterman-style TV show and has attracted huge crowds with his garish if somewhat ostentatious musical performances. From political obscurity Slavi Trifonov and his right-hand man, Toshko Yordanov, rose to the second position in the Bulgarian parliament. In the July ballot they emerged just a few tenths of a percentage point behind Boyko Borisov's GERB. Slavi Trifonov's critics were quick to dismiss his political agenda as mere populism, but few can deny that the emergence of his There Is Such a People party brought a whiff of much needed fresh air to Bulgarian politics. It was owing to Trifonov that Bulgarians realised Boyko Borisov and his stooges, with all their corrupt practices and disregard for parliamentary democracy, could not be in power for good.

Slavi Trifonov will probably lose significantly at the November ballot not least because of the emergence of another wild horse, the Reforms Continued political grouping led by Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev, the two Harvard graduates whom President Rumen Radev appointed caretaker ministers of economy and finance. If opinions are anything to go by, Petkov and Vasilev are slated to become the third largest party in the Bulgarian parliament, after Borisov's GERB and the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, led by Kornelia Ninova. Slavi Trifonov goes further down the road.

In some ways Trifonov's decreased popularity was to be expected. While many Bulgarians cast their votes for him because they were fed up with the political establishment and because they liked his straightforward, at times even vulgar style and his music, many others did so because in him they saw a realistic tool to topple Boyko Borisov's mastodon with.

Petkov and Vasilev cannot be more different than Slavi Trifonov. Well educated and soft-spoken, they favour something that Bulgaria has been in dire need of ever since Boyko Borisov ascended to power in 2009: unity. Unlike everyone else in current politics Petkov and Vasilev are prepared not to exclude anyone on the basis of their past preferences and involvements as long as they manifest their subscription to the principles of democracy, transparency and the rule of law. Most of the other political players do exactly the opposite. Instead of seeking dialogue and allegiances they keep on swearing who they will never ally with – on the basis of real or imaginary accusations of wrongdoing or moral imperfections.

Reforms Continued say as soon as the elections are over talks with both There Is Such a People and the Bulgarian Socialist Party to form a government will commence. If the election does not turn out to be rogue, they may succeed.

One loser in this, except for Slavi Trifonov whose popularity has plummeted, will likely be the DB, or Democratic Bulgaria, alliance led by Ret Gen Atanas Atanasov and Hristo Ivanov, a former minister for Boyko Borisov who is now his mortal foe. At the previous ballot, DB gained a significant lead. In fact, they scored as high as they had not done since the late 1990s, when their predecessor was run by their ideological guru, Ivan Kostov (prime minister in 1997-2001). Opinion polls now show DB's popularity has gone down. The DB, which casts itself as the party of rightwing urban intellectuals, offer little new on Boyko Borisov's GERB except that if elected they will be even more gumptious in "protecting" Bulgarians from Communism and will outperform GERB in being pro-Western. What alienates them from some voters, however, is their intransigence in conducting dialogue with anyone they do not consider tried-and-tested by themselves as well as their claims to moral absolutism that clearly have little to do with the realities in a former East bloc country.

All in all, opinion polls place six parties in the new Bulgarian parliament: GERB, BSP, Reforms Continued, There is Such a People, DPS and DB.

The situation in the ballot for president is in contrast with the fragmented general election. The incumbent, Rumen Radev, scores a solid 51.2 percent while his chief opponent, the rector of Sofia University Anastas Gerdzhikov trails at 22.5 percent. Mustafa Karadaya of the DPS, the Turkish-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms, follows with 7.9 percent. Lozan Panov, a former senior judge who is favoured by the DB, has a meagre 6.2 percent. If the situation does not change, on 14 November President Rumen Radev may win outright, eliminating the need for a second round.

Significantly, none of the players in the the elections with the exception of President Rumen Radev have voiced anything about the really pressing issue of the day. Whilst being embroiled in bickering, none of the political parties contesting the election have put it loud and clear that Bulgarians should get vaccinated against Covid-19.

Bulgaria remains at the rock bottom of the EU in terms of vaccinations. It is currently in the midst of the fourth wave of the pandemic. Its Covid-related death rate is among the highest in Europe if not in the world. Yet, Bulgaria's politicians prefer to eye the ministerial positions they may get if elected – and the accompanying benefits for themselves, their families and their friends. The legacies of Boyko Borisov have turned out to be hard to dismantle. 


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