“If elections changed anything they would have them banned”. So read a well-known piece of Sofia graffiti some years ago. Bulgaria’s parliamentary polls on 12 May 2013 seem to confirm the unknown author’s bitter cynicism. The chances are he or she was among the almost half of Bulgaria’s electorate that did not turn up at the voting booths. The low turnout is striking, given that as recently as February, economic hardship and widespread resentment of the political class propelled thousands onto the streets of Sofia, Varna and other big cities voicing demands for a complete overhaul of “the system”. Three months on, it is apathy that prevails, not the will to install fresh faces in parliament. More than one grouping claimed to represent the protesters, but none made it past the 4% threshold. As I wrote in March, Bulgaria isn’t getting its own Beppe Grillo or Alexis Tsipras (see “Bulgaria’s anger, the real source“, 14 March 2013)
On 14 May, Bulgaria’s central electoral commission made it official: only four parties will adorn Bulgaria’s legislature. Each has a special reason to be jubilant. The former prime minister Boyko Borisov caught his centre-right party GERB by surprise when he suddenly resigned in February. The gambit paid off: GERB (the acronym of “Citizens for European Development for Bulgaria”, but also means “coat of arms”) became the first governing party since 1989 to obtain the highest share of the vote (30.5%). This despite an endless stream of scandals surrounding Borisov and GERB, up to the very eve of the vote (when its alleged printing of fake ballots grabbed the headlines).
Despite this record, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) could only comesecond with 26.6%. Yet the other two parties who will be represented in parliament, the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (MRF) and Ataka, the former leading party is a much more attractive coalition partner than GERB. They too have much to be happy about. The MRF, representing chiefly Bulgaria’s Turks and Muslims, came third with 11.2%; this makes it the chief kingmaker, as it was in the coalition administrations in 2001-09. But to form a government the BSP and MRF will need support from the populist xenophobes of Ataka, which won 7%.
To put together sworn adversaries, including ultranationalists and a minority party, is a tall order – though, as cynics would hasten to say, also perfectly possible in Bulgarian politics. Already, talks are underway in which the socialists are trying to soften Ataka. The prospects are not that bad. There is no love lost between Ataka and GERB, especially since Borisov singlehandedly destroyed the extremists’ caucus in the previous parliament by co-opting several of their MPs. Ataka’s firebrand leader Volen Siderov, riding high on the wave of popular discontent, has enjoyed pillorying foreign businesses over the “colonial yoke” they have imposed on downtrodden Bulgarians. Ataka’s advance means he now has few reasons to see this parliament dissolved and face new elections. No doubt he is also tempted by the glimmer of power. That makes weeks of haggling likely.