Bulgaria’s Government at Risk After Municipal Vote

November 08, 2023
Asya Metodieva
5 min read
Photo credit: Neven Myst / Unsplash.com
Bulgaria’s municipal elections have raised questions about the stability of the government coalition.

Bulgaria’s recently completed municipal elections have put at risk the future of the government of the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party and the We Continue the Change–Democratic Bulgaria (PP–DB) coalition, which has been in office since June. GERB is now contemplating whether and in what form to continue with the government, while the opposition is preparing а confidence vote in parliament.  

Mixed Picture 

GERB, the country’s largest party, remains the first force in half of Bulgaria’s regions but performed worse than in the 2019 municipal elections. In the first round, it elected mayors in six major cities but its support declined in places it dominated for years. A runoff was required in 19 major cities, of which GERB only won seven. It now has mayors in 13 of the 27 major municipalities compared to 19 previously. GERB won the second-largest city, Plovdiv, but lost the third-largest Varna, where it had been in power for a decade. But its most significant defeat was in the capital, Sofia, where it lost control over the mayor’s office and the municipal council after 18 years in control.  

Competing for the first time as a coalition in municipal elections, PP-DB made important breakthroughs and won in four cities, including Sofia and Varna. But it otherwise failed to bring about a significant change in the political landscape. Its total vote was less than that in the April parliamentary elections. In Sofia its candidate for mayor, Vasil Terziev, beat that of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), Vanya Grigorova, by slightly more than one point. (Grigorova and her supporters are contesting the result in court.) PP-DB did not gain a majority in the council and will need to rely on support from other parties.  

The new municipal councils across the country are fragmented, and GERB and PP-DB mayors will be forced to rely on the support of other parties. 

Overall, the new municipal councils across the country are fragmented, and GERB and PP-DB mayors will be forced to rely on the support of other parties. The BSP came out of the elections with confidence after winning four cities as well as smaller towns and villages previously controlled by GERB in the second round. In its first participation in municipal elections, the small populist There Is Such a People (ITN) party elected one mayor. The far-right Vazrazhdane (Revival) party did not elect any mayor but it gained council seats in key cities, such as Sofia and Varna, where it may be able to influence important decisions. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS)—whose co-chairman, Delyan Peevski, is sanctioned under the US Magnitsky Act—won one municipality and now has close to 1,000 council members countrywide. 

Distrust in the Political System 

Three symptoms of distrust in Bulgaria’s political system were evident once again: low turnout, invalid ballots and voters taking the ballot option to say they did not support anyone. In the second round less than 35% of eligible citizens voted and almost 5% took the last option. Lack of interest was perhaps also due to electoral fatigue as the country has held five parliamentary elections in the past three years.   

The high share of invalid ballots in the first round, which reached 20% in some places, raised concerns about the legitimacy of the elections. In the first round, people could only use paper ballots, which can be more easily manipulated, after a last-minute, controversial “warning” from the State Agency for National Security that voting machines may be compromised. The use of machines was back as an option in the second round and there were fewer invalid votes, but technical issues caused problems in some places.  

A Litmus Test 

In many cities GERB and PP-DB ran against each other, and between the two rounds the GERB leader, former prime minister Boyko Borisov, campaigned against his partners in the government. The elections in Sofia were particularly a litmus test for the coalition. GERB’s candidate lost in the first round with only 18%. In the runoff, the party had a difficult choice between Terziev, who represented the challenging government partnership with PP-DB, and Grigorova, who was backed by left-wing populists and pro-Russia parties that GERB tries to differentiate itself from. In an interview between the two rounds, Grigorova said that the Ukrainian flag did not have a place on Sofia’s city hall. Borisov gave his support to Terziev at the last minute, after first suggesting that Grigorova was a better candidate. He later claimed he had been joking.  

Between the two rounds, the GERB leader, former prime minister Boyko Borisov, campaigned against his partners in the government. 

Borisov’s mixed messages seem to have confused his party’s electorate in the capital. Although GERB projects the image of a center-right party with a Euro-Atlantic orientation, almost half of its supporters who voted in the second round backed the BSP candidate. Out of 22 districts of Sofia in which a runoff was held for the election of district mayors, PP-DB won 17, mostly against GERB candidates. 

Earlier this year, the two parties agreed on sharing power with a rotation for the post of prime minister, which is expected to happen early next year. But both see their partnership in the government as a major political compromise. PP-DB was launched with the intention to dismantle GERB’s model of governance but its decision to partner with Borisov’s party has brought distrust among its electorate.  

The municipal elections’ results and the tensions between the two parties during the campaign have made the political situation unpredictable. This could affect not only the prime ministerial rotation but also important votes that the parliament must take, including on the 2024 budget. While Borisov says that early elections are not an option, GERB’s antagonistic behavior managed to energize the vote against PP-DB from other parties. Time will show if this poses a real threat to the government and the country’s stability.