Bulgarians head to the polls on Sunday (12 May) to elect a new Parliament nearly three months after public outrage forced the government to resign. The snap election comes amid the fallout of a wiretapping scandal that exposed abuse of power.
During street protests in January and February, sparked in part by high energy costs and general economic malaise, six people in different cities set themselves on fire and five died of their burns.
The protests forced Boyko Borissov’s government to resign.
Bulgaria’s political landscape is dominated by two parties. The first is Borissov’s GERB (Citizens for a European Development of Bulgaria), a party built around his personality and affiliated with the centre-right European Peoples’ Party. The second one is the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) led by Sergei Stanishev, who is the leader of the Party of European Socialists (PES).
GERB enjoyed a comfortable lead over BSP by the time the mass protests started at the beginning of the year, but this time around polls gave each party around 20% of the vote.
Two other political players are certain of being represented in the next parliament. The first is the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a party traditionally representing Bulgaria's Turkish and Muslim population as well as those living in Turkey. It is led by Lyutvi Mestan, who recently replaced its long-time leader Ahmed Dogan. The other is the nationalist ATAKA party, led by former journalist Volen Siderov, seen by many as “the opposite number” of DPS. ATAKA and DPS get around 8-9%.
Most opinion polls consider that the Bulgaria for Citizens party of former EU Commissioner Meglena Kuneva will pass the 4% threshold and make its appearance in parliament. For other parties, such as the traditional centre-right party DSB of former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, the parliamentary future looks uncertain.
GERB's declining popularity is largely explained by the unfolding wiretapping scandal, dubbed by the news media as ‘the Bulgarian Watergate’.
If the wiretapping allegations prove to be true, Borissov’s government would have monitored many of the major political figures in the country. President Rossen Plevneliev and EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva were among those reportedly tapped.
In recent developments, a minister from the GERB government, Miroslav Naydenov, confirmed that all ministers and other personalities were illegally monitored by former Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, who is the No. 2 in the party after Borissov and the engineer of GERB’s election campaign.
Unauthorised wiretapping was widespread under Borissov, Prosecutor General Sotir Tsatsarov said. His office conducted interrogations of Borissov and Tzvetanov, who was charged on 30 April in connection with the wiretapping.
Tzvetanov enjoys immunity as an election candidate.
Borissov dismissed the wiretapping allegations, though in a rare TV appearance on 5 May he suggested that he would get rid of Tzetanov “if he has made a mistake”.
Tzevatnov has denied any wrongdoing, but as he was interrogated again by prosecutors on 9 May, he accused Stanishev, when he was prime minister, of having “bought” his post as leader of PES by awarding a contract for printing the new Bulgarian identity documents in 2009 to German company Siemens.
Tsvetanov alleged that there was a link between the wife of Austrian Social Democrat MEP Hannes Swoboda, who works for Siemens, and Stanishev’s “election as PES leader by Swoboda”.
Stanishev retorted that he would relinquish his immunity as a candidate for parliament, calling on Tsvetanov to do the same. Speaking on the Bulgarian national radio, Swoboda called Tsvetanov’s allegations “ugly lies”, adding that Stanishev was nominated as PES leader by Danish politician Poul Nyrup Rasmussen and elected at the PES Congress with 90% of the vote.
For the first time in Bulgaria’s modern history, little debate took place during the campaign and party leaders did not jostle on public television. More than 250 foreign observers have arrived in the country, which has a record of vote-buying and electoral fraud.
BSP and four other opposition parties have made preparations for an independent parallel vote count.
Analysts say that cobbling together a new government will be a daunting task, saying the country could become ungovernable if one or more major political players refuse to accept the election result. Some commentators already forecast another general election in autumn.
In February, the European Parliament debated the state of democracy in Bulgaria, describing it as the "weak link" in the EU and a threat to European values across the continent.