‘Change continues’ is the surprise winner of Bulgarian elections

Assen Vassilev [L] and Kiril Petkov during the campaign. [Dnevnik/Lili Toushek]

‘Change continues’, a new anti-graft political force in Bulgaria, is the surprise leader following the parliamentary and presidential elections in Bulgaria on Sunday (14 November), while the country’s President Rumen Radev is well-placed for reelection, having won 48.5% in the first round.

According to preliminary count in the morning of Monday, ‘Change continues’ obtained 25.85% of the vote, followed by Boyko Borissov’s GERB at 20.38%, the mostly ethnic Turkish Movement of Rights and Freedoms with 15.66%, ‘There is such a people’ of showman Slavi Trifonov with 10.54%, the Bulgarian Socialist Party BSP with 9.07%, Democratic Bulgaria of Hristo Ivanov with 5.9% and a pro-Russian and anti-vaxxer force, Vazrazhdane (Revival) with 5.4%.

The election results are surprising. Pre-election opinion polls gave GERB a strong lead and placed ‘Change continues’ third, after BSP.

‘Change continues’, built around Harvard-trained businessmen Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, gained prominence based on their performance as ministers in the caretaker government of Stefan Yanev (May-September 2021) when both exposed corruption in various spheres. Both are close to President Rumen Radev.

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The vote took place after two parliamentary elections, in April and July, failed to produce a government, primarily because of political wrangling between the so-called ‘Protest parties’, respectively ‘There is such a people’, ‘Democratic Bulgaria’ and ‘Stand up! Mafia out!’.

Sunday’s vote also confirmed the strong support for Rumen Radev, a harsh critic of Borissov, who won 48.5% of the vote in the first round against 21% for Anastas Gerdzhikov, a university professor backed by GERB. Radev is riding high ahead of the runoff on 21 November.

Speaking late on Sunday after the results from the exit polls gave his force the leading position, Petkov said ‘Change continues’ will enter in talks to form a coalition with Democratic Bulgaria, BSP and ‘There is such a people’. He excluded any collaboration with GERB and DPS.

Petkov also confirmed that he was his party’s candidate for Prime Minister, adding that this was not a ‘red line’ and that the coalition partners would determine the cabinet members.

He confirmed that the fight against corruption was the priority of ‘Change continues’. Asked how he would deal with the Western pressure on Bulgaria to lift its veto over the start of neighbouring North Macedonia’s EU accession talks, he repeated what he said in his recent interview for EURACTIV Bulgaria, namely that to solve problems, historians were not enough and top businessmen should also be included.

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Slavi Trifonov considered the biggest loser of the elections, made a statement on his TV channel, saying that he had no regrets for failing to form a government when his party was the leading force.

Kornelia Ninova, the leader of BSP, was asked by journalists if she was planning to resign, given the dismal score of her force. She responded by claiming credit for the good score of Radev, which BSP supports, and by blaming the low turnout and the pandemic. Bulgaria is struggling with its most severe wave of COVID-19 primarily due to a low vaccination rate.

The turnout in the elections was just under 40%, an all-time low in Bulgaria.

The elections will mark the entry in Parliament of ‘Vazrazhdane’ (Revival) of Kostadin Kostadinov, a pro-Russian force with far-right tendencies, which based its campaign mostly on anti-vaxxer and anti-restrictions messages.

‘Vazrazhdane’ appears to have attracted the electorate of similar far-right groupings such as Ataka of Volen Siderov, NFSB of Valeri Simeonov, or VMRO of Krassimir Karakachanov, which obtained scores of less than 1%.

These forces, which call themselves ‘patriotic’, were the junior partner of Boyko Borissov’s GERB in the recent past.

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