Many Bulgarians express optimism that anti-corruption candidates will win seats in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. They also know that the country’s political situation will take a long time to change.
There is not much going on Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia’s main commercial drag. There isn’t even much sign in the nation’s capital that parliamentary elections, the first since 2017, are scheduled for Sunday. However, a few members and supporters of the opposition Rise Up! Thugs Out! coalition have gathered, and they are livestreaming on Facebook. This movement emerged from months of protest against the government that began in summer 2020. Members seek to prevent Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, the leader of the center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), from winning a fourth term.
Bulgaria is now in another pandemic shutdown, which was imposed shortly after the government had allowed restaurants to open and promised to ease restrictions despite a rising number of cases of COVID-19 and the protests of health experts. In mid-March, Assen Baltov, the director of Pirogov emergency hospital, the biggest in the country, said that the hospital was “working at its limit” and was almost at capacity.
Although the government has failed to manage the pandemic successfully, the prime minister and his party are leading in the polls. “The opposition was not able to establish itself,” a middle-aged man in central Sofia said. “I prefer what I already know — even if it’s not the best.”
Worn-out, illegitimate’ GERB
Younger Bulgarians do not necessarily share the man’s resignation. Dimitar Dimitrov is 29 and has a master of arts from the London School of Economics. He likely could have gotten a job abroad, but he chose to return six years ago and now he is running with the laissez-faire three-party alliance Democratic Bulgaria (DB), co-led by Hristo Ivanov, a former justice minister who was forced to resign after his proposed changes to the legal system failed.
Dimitrov, who represents a well-educated generation of Bulgarians who think globally but want to act locally, said Borisov and his government were “worn-out, illegitimate and harmful for political and public life in Bulgaria.”
The movement has attracted younger Bulgarians such as Iva Tsenkova and Atanas Terziev, who are both 27 and work in digital management. In 2020, they took part in the demonstrations in Sofia, chanting “Mafia!” with their fellow protesters.
“I can’t see anybody in politics who actually knows what they’re doing,” Terziev told DW. “Bureaucracy and incompetence are omnipresent.”
Tsenkova, who studied in Austria and returned to Bulgaria three years ago, told DW that “nepotism and corruption are also omnipresent, and this is very disillusioning for people.” She said this was her reason to vote for an alternative.
Violating EU norms
Bulgaria is tied with Hungary and Romania on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index — making the three countries the worst-ranking EU members. It also ranks 111th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which describes Bulgaria as “the black sheep of the European Union,” with a small number of companies controlling most media outlets within the country. “Corruption and collusion between media, politicians and oligarchs is widespread, according to Reporters Without Borders.
According to the latest polls, DB could win 6-8% of the vote on Sunday, but this would not guarantee that it could enter a coalition. “I can’t see any possible partner,” Atanas said. “It would be very demotivating for voters if DB entered a coalition with a status quo party.”
He was referring to the parties that form Bulgaria’s political establishment: The prime minister’s GERB, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which succeeded the Communist Party after 1990, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which has broad support from the Turkish and Roma minorities. One of the latter’s most prominent MPs, the media magnate and oligarch Delyan Peevski, is described by RSF as “the most notorious embodiment” of the corruption and “aberrant state of affairs” in Bulgaria. Peevski himself is not running in this election. There has been no official explanation why.
Dimitrov knows that the postelection period will “not be easy” but said DB “should not make any unprincipled compromises.” This is a noble goal, but it will be difficult achieve, with the future parliament likely to be fragmented, with five to eight parties.
“I still hope that things will change,” Tsenkova said.
If they don’t, Terziev said, there will be more protests. And, he said, “if nothing changes, emigration.”
This article has been translated from German.