Crisis Over or Corrupt Status Quo in Bulgaria?
Bulgaria’s political crisis started in 2020 with anti-corruption protests against the government of then prime minister Boyko Borisov and his center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party. While they were in office, the country fell to the level of a defective democracy. GERB has been embroiled in numerous corruption scandals over the years and is seen by many as representing the status quo, along with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party. As result of continued corruption, the United States imposed sanctions under its Magnitsky Act against members of these parties and related entities in the last couple of years.
The five elections since 2021 showed that there is an ongoing confrontation between the status quo and a new anti-corruption wave represented by the centrist We Continue the Change–Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB). The party seeks to end the corrupt practices and influence of GERB and its likes. However, neither of them was able to form a stable government as each has an insufficient electorate.
Trying to End the Crisis
In April, GERB won the most recent elections with 26.49% of the votes and 69 seats. PP-DB was second with 24.56% and 64 seats. As before, coalition negotiations were needed to put together a majority of 121 members in parliament, and any collaboration between the two leading parties seemed unlikely.
Yet, surprisingly, in May GERB and PP-DB agreed to form a coalition government for at least 18 months, based on an unprecedented prime ministerial rotation. PP-DB’s Nikolay Denkov will first hold the office for nine months, after which GERB’s Mariya Gabriel will take over for nine months. Most of the ministers are technocrats not directly affiliated with either party.
GERB is the clear winner in this situation. Getting back into power with the anti-corruption PP-DB gives the impression that its wrongdoings have been forgiven and its reputation restored. But PP-DB also gains in that some of its cadres are now ministers, which is not the case for GERB. However, GERB controls the majority of the permanent parliamentary commissions.
GERB wanted to be in power at all costs while PP-DB wanted to end the political crisis.
One reason for this unexpected cooperation concerns the office of the prosecutor general, who has unchecked and unlimited power. The incumbent, Ivan Geshev, was appointed in 2019 when Borisov was prime minister. He is alleged to have protected Borisov from prosecution for corruption and abuse of power. Geshev’s resignation was the main demand of the 2020 protests and a key PP-DB goal. This made him a liability for GERB now as PP-DB would not consider governing with it as long as Geshev was in office. Borisov’s party therefore announced that it would seek his removal. And, indeed, the Supreme Judicial Council terminated Geshev’s appointment in June.
The two parties came to the conclusion that they needed each other. GERB wanted to be in power at all costs while PP-DB wanted to end the political crisis. However, because of their differences, there are doubts as to whether the government will last a full term or be able to legislate across a wide range of issues, as the two parties said they want to. There are many areas where action is needed urgently so as not to paralyze the state and its institutions. This includes the budget, joining the EU’s Schengen visa-free zone and the eurozone, anti-corruption measures, constitutional change to limit the powers of the prosecutor general, and reform of the judiciary and security services. One further potential complicating factor is that constitutional reform would need the support of the DPS, another member of the old status quo.
The Lesser Evil
Had GERB and PP-DB not reached their compromise to form a government, Bulgaria may have continued holding elections every few months. They would have continued being the first and second political powers respectively, at least for a while. At the same time, the radical-right and pro-Russia Revival party would have continued to gain support. It has continuously increased its electoral score in the last two years, becoming the third power in April with a record 14.16%.
Meanwhile, the pro-Russia President Rumen Radev would have continued ruling the country through interim governments appointed by him, playing a larger role in shaping policy than that foreseen in the constitution. Such a scenario would have further paralyzed the institutions of state as the abovementioned key legislation would not have been passed.
All of this would only have been favorable to Russia and its proxies in the country, such as Revival and Radev, destabilizing a key NATO and EU member in the Black Sea region.
It is equally bad, though, that the formation of the coalition government sends a signal that the corrupt status quo in the form of GERB and Borisov (and possibly DPS) will continue to be part of Bulgaria’s politics for the foreseeable future. This will reinforce the notion that corruption is simply part of the state and cement Bulgaria’s image as a corrupt partner internationally.
The formation of the new government may thus be the lesser evil. However, if GERB and PP-DB are not able to work effectively together, it could collapse sooner rather than later, necessitating new elections. Therefore, it is not certain that the political crisis in Bulgaria has ended.