Bulgarian protests lead to governments resignation.

Election 2013 Legislative elections in Bulgaria: no winners, no alternative

There is no ‘winner’ on these legislative elections and no clear alternative to the status quo after 2009. Even if there is certain stabilization on the political scene (no newcomers in Parliament on these elections), the negative public attitude towards the mainstream parties and their lack of legitimacy may provoke further protests and the lack of clear majority in Parliament may undermine the stability of the new government.

Published on balticworlds.com on June 3, 2013

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The legislative elections in Bulgaria on the 12th of May 2013 were marked by public protests and manifestations in the beginning of the year, resulting in the resignation of the government on 20th of February 2013 and the appointment of an interim government. The political situation in the country was very unstable in the months preceding the elections and a general criticism towards all the main parties (in government and in opposition) was combined with claims for political reforms and more direct democracy. Furthermore, during the campaign, a scandal of corruption and illegal practices of the incumbent government was widely discussed in the media and became one of the most important topics during the campaign. On the other hand, even if the public dissatisfaction marked the beginning of the electoral campaign and united the mainstream parties against the incumbent party GERB, the results confirmed the position of the incumbents as the strongest party in the country and led to a deadlock in the negotiations in Parliament to form a new government.

The aim of this article is to present and assess the political struggles before the elections as well as the campaign of the main parties and its presentation in the media. Furthermore, it will turn to the results of these elections and the possible outcomes for the future government. In the first section, I will present briefly the main political parties and their position on the political scene. Then I will turn to the context before the elections and the main highlights of the campaign, as well as its presentation in the media. The final two sections will assess the results and the outcomes of these elections.

Parties and political movements in Bulgaria: an overview

There are four major parties in Bulgaria and several smaller political actors. On the left side of political spectrum, there is a single dominant party: the Bulgarian Socialist party (BSP), successor of the ex-Communist party in Bulgaria, which reformed itself after the fall of the communist regime in 1989 and became the dominant political actor representing the left.

On the right side of the spectrum, there are several political actors, the most important of which is the center-right party Citizens for European development of Bulgaria (GERB), created in 2006 by the mayor of Sofia and ex-Secretary general of the Ministry of Interior: Boyko Borissov. This party obtained rapid success over time (mostly thanks to the reputation of its leader) and managed to win the European and local elections of 2007 and the legislative elections of 2009, forming a minority government. Rossen Plevneliev, the current president, who won the 2012 presidential elections, was also a candidate supported by GERB and ex-minister of Regional development and Public works in the GERB’s Council of Ministers.

The third strongest party on Bulgarian political scene is the party Movement of rights and freedoms (DPS), which has a centrist-liberal profile and is representing mainly the Turkish minority in the country. It has benefited from a stable electoral support (mostly by the ethnic minority) over the last 23 years, becoming one of the key players as a pivot-party between the left and the right.

The fourth political force in terms of support is the nationalist (extreme right) party “Ataka”, created in 2005 by Volen Siderov, a prominent journalist who started his political career as a TV host of a political show called Ataka and after its success and increasing popularity decided to create a party. The support for Ataka has been quite stable over time and allowed the party to become an important actor in terms of coalition-building.

There are several smaller political parties who didn’t manage to pass the electoral threshold[1] on these elections: the party Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB) headed by the former leader of the anti-communist right-wing movement Union of Democratic forces (SDS) who later split and created his own party after the electoral defeats of 2001 and 2003. The Union of Democratic forces (SDS) is also a smaller party, which was a dominant political movement (and a former union of smaller right-wing parties) during the first decade after 1989 before losing the elections in 2001. The two parties, SDS and DSB (in coalition with other smaller parties), couldn’t pass the threshold and lost their parliamentary representation for the first time since 1989. The third smaller political party who didn’t pass the threshold on these elections was the party Order, Law and Justice (RZS), created in 2005 who managed to enter the Parliament in 2009 becoming the smallest political formation.

On the last legislative elections, only four parties managed to pass the threshold and enter the Parliament: GERB (incumbent) (30,5 %), the BSP (26, 6%), the DPS (11,3%) and Ataka (7,3%). Four parties lost their parliamentary seats (see section three on the results of these elections).

The context

The legislative elections on 12th of May 2013 in Bulgaria were organized following a series of manifestations and protests since the beginning of 2013, which pushed the Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and the whole government to resign on the 20th of February. There are several reasons causing this political crisis. The first signs of public discontent started in 2012 when the government negotiated the leasing of beach and mountain natural reserves for tourist exploitation. These negotiations provoked the dissatisfaction of groups of ecologists and other citizens, fearing that a new deal with the private investor may lead to a greater exploitation of the natural resources and the destruction of protected areas in order to build ski slopes and other touristic attractions. After several weeks of protests, the government stopped the negotiations. The next important crisis came several months later with the protests of farmers who claimed the funds they were supposed to receive in advance from the government in order to continue their investments before they obtain the European funds. The Prime Minister promised to compensate their losses and to solve the budget problems. Later on, several strikes followed in the industrial plants of Sopot and Gorubso Madan over unpaid wages and lay-offs. At the same time, a corruption scandal over the distribution of Funds for scientific research provoked the discontent of the researchers in the Bulgarian Academy of sciences. The last important stage of protests came with the electricity bills in January, when the prices doubled and many people couldn’t afford to pay their bills.

These accumulations of series of protests led to several changes[2] in the government and the last to date was the resignation of the finance minister Simeon Dyankov, one of the most prominent figures in the government. After their beginning the protests, initially started by a heterogeneous movement of dissatisfied citizens, were supported by other groups (especially some of the ecologists who had protested in 2012 as well as the agricultural and industrial workers and other groups), creating a general movement against the government and against political elites in general. The Prime Minister Boyko Borissov tried to calm down the protesters by reducing the prize of electricity by a government decree and forcing the unpopular ministers to resign. These measures couldn’t stop the protests and street clashes between the police and the protesters soon resulted in several imprisonments and wounded people. A young mn, Plamen Goranov, immolated himself in Varna in front of the city council and became one of the symbols of the protest movement, followed by four other immolations during the following weeks. This situation led the Prime minister to resign and new interim government was appointed by the President Plevneliev, because all the other major parties refused to form a government. The early elections were held on 12th of May (instead of June as planned).

An interesting feature of these elections was the fact that public protests were not headed by a political party and they combined several groups with different claims, all united against the government. Even more interesting was the fact that they protested against “all” political parties and the protesters always asserted that they are not a political movement. On the other hand, by the end of the demonstrations these groups managed to formulate common statements in which they demanded political parties to step down and citizen quotas to be admitted in parliament as well as a modification of the current Constitution, control over all important privatization contracts etc. Most of these claims didn’t succeed but the general attitude towards the political elite and the traditional parties was clearly negative and shared by the majority of the protesters.

The campaign

Popular discontent was not the only major event during the months preceding the elections. After the official start of the campaign, one important scandal over a tape record of a conversation between the Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, the ex-Minister of Agriculture Naydenov and the main prosecutor of Sofia Kokinov, discussing the distribution of seats and corruption practices, was given to the press and published by the media. This was not the first case of such “tape record” scandal: several other cases of similar tape records provoked tensions during the last legislature, all of them related to GERB party and its links with important businessmen, judges and other personalities. This scandal also proved that all of the  ministers in the government were under illegal eavesdrop (the Prime minister Borissov admitted in one interview in 2011[3] that he was aware of these practices and he doesn’t consider them illegal, because Ministers should “work as they are surveyed”). This scandal provoked a huge debate in the media over democratic freedoms and the role of the government and increased the perception of corruption in Bulgaria.

Apart from this scandal, the campaign was depicted by most observers as a “boring and uninteresting” because it didn’t provoke any major political debates beyond the mutual criticism between the ex-governing party GERB and the opposition. The main political message of BSP, in opposition, was “Vote against GERB, vote for us” [4]. A similar message was used by the other opposition parties, such as DPS and Ataka, who backed the street protests but couldn’t benefit from them during the elections. This attitude followed the general critical stand expressed by the opposition parties during the entire legislature and didn’t have a stimulating effect on the campaign as such. The behavior of the biggest party, GERB, was rather restricted and less active and the party even avoided public debates and meetings. This strategy is typical for this party, whose leader used a similar tactic in 2009, avoiding direct debate and insisting on his practical achievements (official opening of newly constructed roads, hospitals, schools etc.). In the context of the 2013 campaign, this strategy didn’t have a clearly positive impact but it didn’t decrease their rating[5] further. In general, after the resignation, GERB was viewed by many right-wing voters as the “only” alternative, even if they were disappointed by the incumbent government. The negative campaign of the other political parties produced the opposite effect and many voters finally backed the incumbents. In general, we may define the campaign as “an evaluation” of the previous government with a strong negative accent on the “failures” of GERB. The fact that this tactic was not sufficient for the other parties to win the elections shows that the general disappointment from all political parties neutralized the effect of the campaign[6]. The only party who benefited from the overall disappointment was the radical nationalist party Ataka that  managed to recover after a split and several in-fights, leading to the loss of half of its deputies in the Parliament in 2011. This party managed to enter the Parliament and to “express” some of the frustration of the protest movement by its radical stand and opposition to all traditional parties.

Election coverage

The coverage of 2013 elections by the most influential media followed the general tendency in public opinion and adopted a critical position towards all the main political parties: GERB (see table 1b), BSP and, to a lesser extend DPS. On the other hand, the presentation of Ataka and other more radical movements became slightly positive during the campaign. This can be related to the impact of the protests and the unwillingness of most of the traditional parties to take a clear position or address the claims of the citizens. The negative campaign reinforced this attitude and even the media adopted a line of general distrust towards the political elite and all the traditional parties. The only two political movements to benefit from this tendency were Ataka (symbolizing an anti-systemic pole) and DPS, who managed to stay neutral and more constructive during the campaign, which resulted in a positive image in the media. If we compare these results with the ones of the previous year, we can see that this process hasn’t started with the elections but represented a general trend during the second half of the legislature.

On the other hand, GERB party and its leader Boyko Borissov still kept the first position in terms of media attention, both during the crisis and the following campaign (table 1a). This is important in order to understand the dynamics of the campaign as such (in favor or against the incumbent government), but also the perception of lack of alternative amongst the citizens. By focusing the general attention on the incumbent government, its results and criticism, the media left little space for a positive or neutral campaign based on concrete policy proposals.

The last important aspect of media presentation of the campaign can be seen in the certainty, expressed by the voters, days before the election. One week before the elections, about 20% of the Bulgarians were not sure if they are willing to vote and for which political party (table 4). This group often makes a choice in the last days of the campaign and can easily switch from one party to another even though it rarely crosses the main cleavage left-right.

The results

The outcome of these legislative elections didn’t come as a surprise since the tendency was already clear in the pre-election polls. Although GERB was an incumbent party, it managed to keep sufficient electoral support to win the elections (30,5%) even if the score was close to the one of BSP (26,6%)- the main opposition party- thus  reducing the margin between the two main parties (table 2). The DPS obtains a slightly decreased score compared to 2009, receiving 11,3% of the vote (compared to 14% in 2009) but this is close to its median score for the last decade (11,04%) . Ataka obtains 7,3% which is also quite close to the result in 2009 and 2005 (9,4 in 2009 and 8,1 in 2005) (table 3). Two of the newly created parties, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) and the movement “Bulgaria of the Citizens” (NDBG) which could potentially enter the Parliament, didn’t manage to pass the 4% threshold (table 2). This outcome is important because these legislative elections were the first since 2001 on which no new parties enter the Parliament, contrary to the other three legislative elections during the last decade, when between 14 and 40 % of the votes went to newly created parties, resulting in two governments formed by newcomers on the political scene. It is too early to say if this tendency towards stabilization will become a trend, at least as it comes to the right-wing spectrum.

The other interesting (although predictable) outcome of these elections was the fact that the traditional right-wing parties (SDS and DSB) didn’t manage to pass the 4% threshold and stay out of the Parliament for the first time since 1989. This result didn’t come as a surprise, because their score was in constant decline during the last decade (see table 3) and even the coalition between the two parties in 2009 (called “Blue coalition”) didn’t improve their performance. If we take a look at the vote transfer, we can see that 14% of the voters who had voted for the Blue coalition in 2009, voted for GERB on these elections. This means that for part of the right-wing electorate GERB becomes the only credible alternative (apart from the radical nationalist Ataka).

These results also show that despite the low public support for the right-wing party GERB, the left-wing BSP cannot mobilize sufficient electoral support to form a government alone and (as in 2005) will be increasingly dependent on its political allies. This tendency is due to several factors. The first one is that the BSP voters’ profile corresponds to the older generation (60+ years old), living in the small villages and attached to a tradition of left-wing voting. The lack of renewal within the party and especially the impossibility to attract younger voters can result in a steady decline over time, following the natural trend of generational renewal. Never the less, the BSP has managed to conserve its dominant position in the left-wing spectrum and all the new parties, trying to challenge this position, have failed, contrary to the situation in the right-wing spectrum.


In conclusion, the results of the 2013 legislative elections didn’t come as a surprise on Bulgarian political scene, even if they were preceded by several months of protests and dissatisfaction from the policy of the incumbent government. In some way, the results confirmed the status quo of 2009, even if the incumbents lost ¼ of their electorate (table 3). The difference between the previous elections and the present-day ones is mostly in the fact that none of the political parties today can form a government alone and the alliances will play a crucial role. The difficulty of the incumbents comes from the fact that all the other parties in Parliament were opposed to their policies during the last legislature and all of them campaigned against GERB. On the other hand, there is a clear-cut cleavage between the radical nationalist party Ataka and the DPS, representing the Turkish minority and the two parties cannot openly participate in a coalition together. This may lead to several different scenarios, the most plausible being a large “expert” government including ministers from all political parties but this remains to be confirmed and to date there is no clear consensus. This new configuration in the Parliament can also provoke further tensions and instability and eventually lead to anticipated elections, because the level of public discontent didn’t change after the elections. Overall, we can say that there is no ‘winner’ on these legislative elections and no clear alternative to the status quo after 2009. Even if there is certain stabilization on the political scene (no newcomers in Parliament on these elections), the negative public attitude towards the mainstream parties and their lack of legitimacy may provoke further protests and the lack of clear majority in Parliament may undermine the stability of the new government.


  1. The electoral threshold in Bulgaria is 4% for both parties and coalitions since the revision of the law in 2012
  2. For the whole legislature, the government of GERB has made 14 changes of Ministers and vice-Ministers.
  3. An interview on the national channel Btv on 6-th of January 2011, see http://btvnews.bg/bulgaria/politika/balgarskiyat-uotargeit-3.html
  4. One of the most widely spread messages of BSP during the campaign, see: http://offnews.bg/index.php/192782/stanishev-glasuvajte-za-bsp-za-da-se-osvobodite-ot-gerb
  5. There is 1% increase of the support for GERB between January and April 2013, see Alpha research survey : http://alpharesearch.bg/bg/socialni_izsledvania/socialni_publikacii/obshtestveni-naglasi-mart-2013g.790.html
  6. The government preceding the one of GERB 2009-2013 was formed by a triple coalition of the left-wing BSP, a centrist formation NDSV (National Movement for stability and progress) and the DPS, leaving in opposition only GERB, Ataka and the smaller right-wing parties.
  • by Blagovesta Cholova

    Blagovesta Cholova is Phd /teaching assistant at the Centre d’études de la vie politique (CEVIPOL) at Université libre de Bruxelles ( Free university of Brussels), Belgium. She is a member of the IPSA, ECPR and ABSP associations. Her research focuses on Populism and political parties in Central and Eastern Europe and especially in Bulgaria. Her Phd thesis is on the Right-wing populist parties in Bulgaria.

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