National Assembly main building, Sofia, Wikimedia.

National Assembly main building, Sofia, Wikimedia.

Election The 2017 Parliamentary Elections in Bulgaria:  Stabilizing the Status Quo and Normalizing the Far Right

The main takeaway from the outcome of Bulgaria’s parliamentary elections in March 2017 is that stability has replaced relative instability. Nevertheless, the last elections have ushered in the possibility of democratic backsliding and increasing authoritarian rule in Bulgaria. In this sense Bulgaria fits within a regional trend. It should also be underlined that the far right managed to do what the ever-quarrelling urban middle class and mainly conservative milieu could not: namely unite and secure enough of a vote to become Borisov's junior partner in government.

Published on on November 22, 2017

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On 26 March 2017 Bulgaria held early parliamentary elections. The elections were called as a result of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov handing in his government’s resignation following the outcome of the presidential elections in November 2016. These were Bulgaria’s third consecutive snap elections since 2013 when the first Borisov-led government resigned prematurely (two months before the end of its term). More so, since the parliamentary elections of 2009, every Bulgarian government (not counting the three caretaker governments prior to the subsequent elections) had been minority governments propped up by votes from far right parties. This engendered a period of protracted political instability which also saw the outbreak of mass anti-government protests in 2013[1]. The March 2017 elections, however, would usher in an end to this situation of relative instability.


Political tribulations and historical legacies

To understand the tribulations of Bulgaria’s political scene for most of the past decade one needs to look back to the late 1990s and the start of the new millennium, at which point one can observe a populist turn that would shape the framework of Bulgaria’s politics for years to come. The first years following the transition from state socialism had resulted in alternating governments of the either the post-communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) or the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), the party of the ethnic Turkish minority, as junior coalition partner – the latter two parties having emerged as opposition formations against the former communists. This pattern was broken following mass protests in 1997 -which have come to be regarded as a second stage of the 1989-1990 anti-communist ‘revolution’- that propelled majority government by a SDS-led political bloc, the United Democratic Forces (ODS) to power which launched a comprehensive economic reform programme. Though it was the first government to sit out a full term, the impact of the reforms eroded its popularity and the ODS support base collapsed, which was further exacerbated by splits within the ODS.

This opened the field to new players in the political arena who harnessed the power of populist resentment and the promise of a ‘saviour’. The first act was literally personified by the ‘return of the King’, Simeon II Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who had been forced to abdicate in 1946. The former Tsar set up a political formation that emerged victorious in the parliamentary elections, decisively beating both the ODS and BSP, and the erstwhile monarch became the head of government of a republic. However, the promise of ‘salvation’ did not materialize and the outcome of the next election produced a ‘tripartite coalition’ government between the BSP, DPS, and the former Tsar’s party. The 2005-2009 period of the so-called tripartite coalition -and its opportunistic power-sharing agreement- came to be perceived as the most cynical political setup in Bulgaria’s then history since 1989 despite the country entering the EU under this government.[2]

The legacy of the tripartite coalition period is key to understanding Bulgaria’s political trajectory since 2009, with its populist rhetoric and pragmatic (and even cynical) power politics, for three reasons. Firstly, while the BSP had achieved its highest percentage of the vote in the new millennium and its preferred coalition partner, the DPS, saw its vote stabilized within its ethnic niche of the electorate, no BSP-DPS coalition would be able to muster a majority without a willing third partner.  Secondly, the period saw the complete implosion of the former anti-communist political bloc around the SDS. The result would be a plethora of splinter parties that alternated between pre-electoral rapprochement and perennial infighting while accumulating a shrinking percentage of the vote. Finally, the period would see the rise of two political forces that would become crucial players in the years to follow: a new centre-right party, Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) led by the charismatic and populist Boyko Borisov, and the far right – the latter still divided over several parties and formations but initially spearheaded by another new party, Attack (ATAKA) whose leader Volen Siderov had managed to make it into the second-round runoff in the presidential elections of 2006.


The rise of GERB and the far right

Both GERB and the far right entered parliamentary politics following the elections in 2009 that put an end to the tripartite coalition. Having won a landslide victory Borisov formed a GERB minority government relying on silent support from ATAKA to obtain a voting majority. The formula of minority government with silent support from the far right would become a mainstay of Bulgarian politics until 2017. In 2013, Bulgaria was plunged into a period of political instability after early elections were called following mass protests. Though GERB secured a third of the vote and won the elections, the party’s share of the vote had decreased enough that it needed at least one junior coalition partner to govern. As none of the former SDS bloc splinter parties had managed to clear the threshold, this prompted BSP and DPS to form an anti-GERB minority coalition propped up with silent support from ATAKA. Yet, this government -plagued by scandals and protests against it- resigned a year later, again triggering early elections.

Once again GERB won the elections securing a third of the vote. This time more parties entered parliament in part thanks to electoral alliances.[3] Among these were an alliance of five small parties (from the former SDS-led anti-communist bloc) united in the right-wing Reformers Bloc (RB); two far right parties, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO), united in the Patriotic Front, and the Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV) – a BSP-breakaway party. All of these parties were involved in the next government: a GERB-RB minority coalition with silent support from both the PF and the ABV. This second Borisov government was plagued by instability as both rifts with and within GERB’s coalition partners emerged. The literal nail in the coffin for the second Borisov government was the outcome of the presidential elections in 2016 in which Borisov’s handpicked candidate, Tsetska Tsacheva, lost in a landslide to Rumen Radev, an independent candidate but backed by BSP. Prior to the elections Borisov had pledged to step down if his candidate failed to win. Though technically not short of a voting majority in parliament, Borisov made good on his promise and tendered the government’s resignation. Radev’s victory (and the prospect of BSP’s rise in the polls) thus prompted the third snap elections in four years time.


Consolidation and shake-ups in the partyscape

As soon as it became clear that the country was heading yet again to snap elections, the party political maneuvering started, including splits and breakaway formations being set up, while new initiatives appeared in the hope of capitalizing on the shock effect of the outcome of the presidential election.[4] Broadly speaking the battle lines were drawn on different levels according to relative traditional strength of the parties and camps. The main rivalry was between the two ‘big players’, GERB and BSP, in what was basically a rematch in the wake of the presidential election with BSP chairman Kornelia Ninova hoping to break Borisov’s hold on power. The other parties were vying for the role of junior partners or even kingmakers as a few seats in parliament could represent a potential hard bargain in a country where minority governments had become the norm.

On the Right, GERB’s junior partner in government, the RB, had started to disintegrate in the wake of the presidential election due to rising internal tensions. Nevertheless, its rump formation of several small parties still headed to the polls under the original alliance’s name. In addition, two new formations arose from the rift within the RB that would style themselves as anti-corruption parties, Yes, Bulgaria and New Republic. Both were hoping to capitalise on middle-class voters who had become disillusioned with the RB project. New Republic chose to profile itself as a traditional conservative party while Yes, Bulgaria tried to attract new voters with a more centrist appeal.

Meanwhile, on the Left, the small ABV that had lent silent support to the previous government teamed up with another small BSP-breakaway party, the Movement 21 (M21). Yet from within the former governing camp it was the far right that pulled off the most remarkable feat in pre-election maneuvering. Already during the presidential elections the PF and ATAKA had come together to put forward a single candidate. Finishing third with a 15% of the vote, their candidate Krassimir Karakachanov, was well ahead of the rest of the pack of presidential hopefuls. This success prompted the far right alliance to be further consolidated as the United Patriots (UP) and enter the parliamentary race in the same constellation. While most small parties were dealing with tactical alliances after splits, the far right had in fact managed for the first time to pool their forces and was preparing for further anticipated electoral success. More so, with its slogan of “No Left, No Right, Only Bulgarian Interests” it was self-confidently vying for the junior coalition partner position whatever the outcome of the main GERB-BSP contest.

More of an anomaly was a split that had occurred within the DPS, the party of the Turkish ethnic minority. The split was the result of the ouster of the party’s former chairman, Lutvi Mestan, as a result of behind-the-scenes machinations instigated by the party’s founder and longtime leader Ahmed Dogan. Mestan setup a breakaway party, Democrats for Responsibility, Solidarity and Tolerance (DOST), and with backing from Turkey -leading to accusations of foreign meddling- was set to compete for the ethnic Turkish vote thereby siphoning off DPS full potential. Finally, another new populist setup appeared in the likes of Will (Volya), a party created by businessman Veselin Mareshki. Mareshki, who self-styled himself as the ‘Bulgarian Trump’ and was trying to cash in on his initial political bid in the presidential election where he gained 10% of the vote in the first round.[5]


Traditional rivalries and populist issues

 The election campaign was brief and in many ways picked up the thread of the themes expounded in the presidential campaign. Similarly it was structured by the now traditional rivalry between the nominally Left (BSP) and the Right (GERB and the splinter parties from the former SDS bloc), which usually translates as a re-enactment of the self-perceived 1990s struggle of anti-communists against post-communists. Additionally, this traditional dynamic of antagonism was given a new lease of life through a distorted and simplistic mimicry of a geopolitical struggle between ‘pro-western’ versus ‘pro-Russian’ camps even though in reality such labels are hardly applicable to Bulgarian political conditions.[6] This was the result of a perception of Radev’s landslide victory as both a BSP and ‘pro-Russian’ tour de force that had been peddled by international and domestic liberal and conservative media.

Therefore, in the campaign GERB tried to present itself as the only ‘pro-European’ choice in light of the upcoming EU presidency with Borisov personally projecting himself as the guarantor of stability, while BSP countered with promises of higher wages, increased welfare spending and a ‘more balanced’ (arguing for better relations with Russia though still pro-European) foreign policy in order to mobilize that part of the electorate imbued with communist-era nostalgia.[7] The two perennial problems in Bulgaria, organized crime and corruption, for which the country was put under supervision after EU accession through the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) were a topic to which most parties traditionally paid lip service by  touching upon the need for judicial reform. This was the core platform of the two anti-corruption crusader parties, New Republic and Yes, Bulgaria, which had split off from the RB. While the former otherwise campaigned on a ‘traditional values’ conservative programme, the latter tried to position itself with a less right-wing profile to appeal to liberal and younger voters.

Apart from the above issues, what stood out in the campaign -as it already had during the presidential elections campaign a few months earlier- was the focus on migration and border security.[8] Here, the bulk of the parties tried to outbid each other in effect allowing a nationalist discourse to dominate, blurring any distinction between Left and Right. If anything, it was clear that what could have been perceived as the political centre of the spectrum had decisively shifted to the Right as nativist rhetoric took hold of the campaign.[9] This in turn put the far right talking points on refugees and ethnic minorities firmly within the mainstream. The nationalist discourse was further strengthened by a focus on defense and military issues.[10] As such, the campaign took a decisively ugly turn with frequent exchanges of mutual recriminations and smear campaigns.


Electoral results and parliamentary outcomes

Polls predicted a neck-and-neck race between GERB and BSP which seemed too close to call.[11] Prior to the vote, commentators were expecting the elections mainly to produce a likelihood of further instability due to complicated and thus fragile coalition arrangements. Moreover, new snap elections were not ruled out.[12] It was assumed that Borisov’s gamble would not pay off.  Indeed, initial reactions to the outcome of the vote did not seem to be optimistic as the options seemed to be limited.[13] From a total of 21 parties or electoral alliances that contested the elections in March 2017, only five managed to cross the 4% threshold: GERB, BSP, United Patriots, DPS, and Volya.

While, the resulting seat allocation in parliament did produce several theoretical possibilities for the formation of governing coalitions, due to the traditional rivalries among the political camps several -among which a ‘grand coalition’ of GERB and BSP- were to be ruled out from the start. Perhaps to the surprise (and dismay) of many observers, Borisov chose the mathematically rather simple solution of partnering with the far right. The far right -despite underperforming compared to the presidential election- was suddenly no longer just the kingmaker offering silent support. The United Patriots were called upon to become a fully-fledged junior partner in government with GERB. Ultimately, for the first time since 2009, a government with a voting majority was formed. The third Borisov-led cabinet was officially sworn in on 4 May 2017 after gaining the parliamentary backing of the GERB, United Patriots, as well as most of the Volya MPs.


Parties % of the vote seats in parliament
GERB 33.54 95
BSP 27.93 80
UP 9.31 27
DPS 9.24 26
Volya 4.26 12
RB 3.14
Yes, Bulgaria 2.96
DOST 2.94
New Republic 2.54
ABV-M21 1.59
Source: Central Election Commission[14]


Immediate reactions and short-term assessments

In the wake of the elections and the swearing in of the government, three straightforward conclusions could be drawn. Firstly, the outcome confirmed the political dominance of GERB and in particular that of Boyko Borisov. Since his political ascendancy, the only election in which Borisov did not prevail was in November 2017 when his handpicked candidate, Tsetska Tsacheva, lost to BSP-backed Rumen Radev in a landslide. The snap elections in the wake of this exceptional defeat served to bolster Borisov’s position. Nevertheless, despite Borisov’s dominance over the years, GERB has only managed to consolidate one third of the voting capacity. As a result, to govern Borisov needs to rely on one or more junior coalition partners.

Secondly, the political ascendancy of the far right has become a fait accompli. Having given silent support in parliament to three minority governments since 2009, the far right parties managed to close ranks, unite in an electoral coalition, and enter the government proper. The United Patriots now hold several significant ministerial posts despite accounting for not even 10% of the vote. On average that percentage has not changed much over the past decade so one cannot really speak of any sudden rise of the far right. Nevertheless, the fact that the far right is now a junior partner (as opposed to providing silent support) in the government is problematic in itself.[15]

However, in contrast to ’illiberal turns’ in other countries of the region like Hungary or Poland and in light of general fears relating to the rise of far right and populist parties in Europe, the Bulgarian far right will most likely shy away from any overly excessive behavior that could destabilize the government. Accounting for only 10% of the vote, they will now be able to enjoy the perks of being in power and have nothing to gain from rocking the boat too hard.[16] In doing so, they have managed to present themselves as Borisov’s necessary and now preferential junior partner. In other words GERB and the far right have reached a mutually beneficial modus vivendi, which explains why the presence of the far right in a government set to hold the EU presidency in the first half of next year has attracted so little attention.[17]

Thirdly, with the formation of a majority government for the first time in nearly a decade, the era of relative political instability was over. The Borisov-led projection of political stability had finally materialized. The price of this stability was an alliance with the far right instead of a conservative formation representing the urban middle class, which for all intents and purposes is now bereft of parliamentary representation as neither the RB nor its spin-offs Yes, Bulgaria and New Republic managed to clear the threshold. More so, by appointing several ministers with links to Bulgaria’s influential media mogul, Delyan Peevski, Borisov has assured himself that his government can count on sufficient friendly media coverage.


Possible long-term implications and prospects

While commentators in Bulgaria still speculate about the possibility of early elections or a breakup of the governing coalition due to possible rifts among the United Patriots’ three constituent parties, at present this seems more like wishful thinking.[18] Most likely, the GERB and far right modus vivendi will not only guarantee that Borisov’s third government will sit out its full term, but in fact offer fruitful cooperation for years to come. As a political alliance it could thus endure for some time. It is important to note that Bulgaria did not experience any sudden ‘illiberal turn’. Rather, due the political centre shifting to the Right, the Bulgarian situation is best described as a gradually constituted ‘illiberal consensus’ with the complicity of all parties involved among others by the adoption of an increasingly nationalist discourse.[19] This discourse strengthened the status quo in which the far right has come to play a crucial role.

For the opposition be it BSP, DPS, the urban conservatives, or any other possible populist upstart the chances to break the status quo are now in fact less than minimal. Though BSP pulled off its highest electoral score since 2005, it was not able to match let alone supersede GERB – this is unlikely to change in the near to mid-term future (as part of its electorate, older cohorts of the population who hold nostalgic views of the socialist era are literally dying out). The DPS as an ethnically based party does not carry much appeal beyond the Turkish minority. More so, the recent split resulting in DOST siphoning off part of its niche votes might have a more long-term impact. In the March 2017 elections, it allowed the United Patriots to overtake DPS as the country’s third largest grouping in parliament, in effect thus strengthening the far right.

It should also be underlined that the far right managed to do what the ever-quarrelling urban middle class and mainly conservative milieux could not i.e. unite and secure enough of a vote to become Borisov’s junior partner in government. As none of the three parties (RB, New Republic and Yes, Bulgaria) managed to even cross the threshold a large part of the capital’s electorate is not represented in parliament. At present there are again efforts underway among these milieux and small parties to unite into one bloc, but this seems more like repeating a familiar story of previously failed ‘also rans’. Perhaps in the not-so-near future such a party could indeed become a satellite party for GERB to govern with instead of the far right. However, since these parties do not have any significant political ‘ground game’ or networks beyond Sofia and a few other major urban centers the chances for this to happen are slim.

Moreover, in recent weeks these milieu seem to have opted to fall back upon their core niche electorate – the conservative, anti-communist urban middle class. As such, this is a self-defeating strategy. It might open the possibility to obtain a few seats in parliament again (which could be used to bargain with or act as a potential kingmaker for a future government), but it will hardly attract new voters. Though Yes, Bulgaria did not succeed to cross the threshold, owing to its more centrist stance it did in fact manage to attract younger and more liberally inclined voters (especially from abroad, which is not unimportant for a country where a large part of the youth chooses to emigrate). Abandoning a possible centrist and more liberal course as seems to be happening now risks losing this voter potential. Young Bulgarians are both more western-minded, but also apathetic to the political process. The old recipes of the ‘anti-communist bloc’ are hardly appealing to those whose everyday life experience is more determined by western European social and cultural realities than those in Bulgaria.

Finally, a word about how the current political situation in Bulgaria intersects with EU politics and in particular the upcoming EU presidency. The EU needs stability and Borisov knows how to deliver this. He is an adroit and cunning political player with enough experience to keep the far right in line just enough so Brussels can turn a blind eye as it is doing now.[20] More so, he knows that Bulgaria -although the poorest EU member state- with its low debt and fiscally responsible regime does not pose any problem for the still reigning European doctrine of austerity politics.[21] Thus, Borisov not only provides stability, he also ensures that Bulgaria will not become a problem for the EU. Given the attention that other countries in the region like Hungary or Poland manage to attract, Borisov knows that as long he can toe the EU line outwardly he does not need to worry about receiving similar scrutiny from Brussels (or Berlin) into what happens on the domestic front as Orbán or Kaczyński. Borisov knows where the power lies in the EU and he has handily aligned himself with the most useful allies. GERB is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP). The President of the European Council, the President of European Commission and the President of the European Parliament all hail from the EPP. Since accession, Bulgaria has made little progress in fighting organized crime and endemic corruption.[22] The EU’s CVM reports confirm this, but both Brussels and Sofia have managed to mutually reconcile with a ritual of self-congratulatory declarations with little or no tangible results.

In sum, Brussels is happy with the stability in Bulgaria and if the price to pay is to have the far right in government then that is fine too. The main takeaway from the outcome of Bulgaria’s parliamentary elections in March 2017 is that stability has replaced relative instability. Democratic deficits, endemic corruption and other ills that plague Bulgaria are now no more than acceptable collateral damage. The EU has other priorities and bigger problems to deal with. Nevertheless, the last elections have ushered in the possibility of democratic backsliding and increasing authoritarian rule in Bulgaria. In this sense Bulgaria fits within a regional trend, one in which western and European leaders ignore anti-democratic practices by local strongmen -and Borisov without doubt qualifies for the label- as long as they manage to keep the peace. It is no coincidence that a scholar from the region coined the term ‘stabilitocracy’.[23] In the wake of the March 2017 elections, it is possible that a new era of ‘stabilitocracy’ has begun in Bulgaria.


[1] Tom Junes, ” Students Take Bulgaria’s Protests to the Next Level. Can They Break the Political Stalemate?” Transit Online, 12 November 2013,
[2] Elitza Stanoeva, “Bulgaria’s Post-1989 Demostalgie” Eurozine, 31 August 2017,
[3] Petia Kostadinova and Maria Popova, “Coalition confusion after Bulgaria’s election” Washington Post, 21 October 2014,
[4] Julia Rone, “Bulgarian Elections 2017: Playing it Safe when Losing” LeftEast, 21 April 2017,
[5] Rick Lyman, “In Bulgaria, a Businessman Who Talks (and Acts) Like Trump” New York Times, 24 February 2017,
[6] Tom Junes, “Bulgaria: how not to mistake Russian propaganda for Russian policy ” Open Democracy, 30 November 2016,
[7] Petia Kostadinova and Maria Popova, “The 2017 legislative elections in Bulgaria” Presidential Power, 30 March 2017,
[8] Clive Leviev-Sawyer, “Migration, Russia are major issues for political parties ahead of Bulgaria’s March 2017 parliamentary elections” Sofia Globe, 15 March 2017,
[9] Jana Tsoneva, “Politics After the Political” Jacobin, 30 March 2017,
[10] Mariya Cheresheva, “Bulgarian Parties Hustle for Patriotic Votes in Election” Balkan Insight, 6 March 2017,
[11] Mariya Cheresheva, “Bulgaria Enters Knife-Edge Parliamentary Contest” Balkan Insight, 26 March 2017,
[12] Dimitar Bechev, “Bulgaria heads to the polls – and the tide may be turning against Boyko Borisov” EUROPP, 20 March 2017,
[13] Clive Leviev-Sawyer, “Bulgaria’s March 2017 parliamentary elections: The winners and losers” Sofia Globe, 27 March 2017,
[14] “Резултати от парламентарни избори – 26 март 2017” Централна избирателна комисия,
[15] Tom Junes, “Far Right in Bulgaria is no Laughing Matter” Balkan Insight, 30 May 2017,
[16] Dimitar Bechev, “Election reaction: The status quo wins in Bulgaria” EUROPP, 27 March 2017,
[17] Michael Colborne, “Bulgaria’s Far-Right is in Government, But Still Flying Under the Radar” Balkanist, 14 August 2017,
[18] Daniel Smilov, “Bulgaria Needs a Reform-oriented Government to Take Full Advantage of its EU Membership” Emerging Europe, 16 May 2016,
[19] Elitza Stanoeva, “Illiberal Consensus without an Authoritarian Core: The Case of Bulgaria” Cultures of History Forum, 21 September 2017,
[20] Ivan Krastev, “What the Bulgarian Elections Mean for the European Union” Foreign Affairs, 31 October 2011,
[21] “Bulgaria’s Economy: In a Rough Region”, The Economist, 7 July 2012,
[22] Ana Maria Tourna and Mariya Cheresheva, “Commission Challenges Bulgaria, Romania on Judicial Reform” Balkan Insight, 15 November 2017,
[23] “Wrong and Stable: The West backs Balkan autocrats to keep the peace, again” The Economist, 29 June 2017,
  • by Tom Junes

    Tom Junes is a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the KU Leuven (Belgium). He is a member of the Human and Social Studies Foundation in Sofia and currently a Visiting Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. As a postdoctoral researcher he has held fellowships in Warsaw, Vienna, Budapest, Helsinki, Potsdam, Jena and Sofia. His research interests cover Eastern European history, Cold War history, and the history of youth and student movements. He is the author of Student Politics in Communist Poland: Generations of Consent and Dissent.

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