Bulgaria is now moving towards its fifth parliamentary election in two years as a result of the failure of the latest group of elected deputies to pull together a new government after three different coalition formation mandates have failed.
The new election has been scheduled for April 2 and will use a hybrid system of voting machines and paper ballots after the current all-machine system was rejected by a majority vote in parliament.
The current group of deputies was elected in October 2022, which was the country’s fourth election since 2021 (three separate elections were held that year). Bulgaria enjoyed a brief respite from its domestic political crisis over the period December 2021-June 2022, when the tenuous four-party coalition led by pro-Western reformer Kiril Petkov collapsed after one coalition partner withdrew.
Miracle workers needed
Forming a coalition government, with enough votes to control the country’s fragmented 240-seat parliament, is expected to remain elusive; both the center-right and reformists have tried and failed since October. The third-place Socialists, with a mere 25 seats, did not even seriously attempt the task when handed the mandate.
The largest winner in the last election, the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria – or GERB – party, obtained 67 seats, far short of the critical mass needed to form a coalition among the seven political parties elected. This may be because former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov remains a deeply controversial figure; linked to old-fashioned corrupt practices in the minds of many voters, as well as most other political party leaders who refuse to join forces with him.
Economic issues: Bulgaria may remain on the sidelines
Earlier this month, Croatia leapfrogged ahead of both Bulgaria and Romania by adopting the euro as its national currency, and by joining the EU’s passport-free Schengen Zone travel area. While missing these targets is not a critical problem, Bulgaria is arguably losing out on important trade, tourism and investment opportunities.
Bulgaria had originally set a target of formally joining Europe’s single currency Eurozone in 2023, but let that slip to 2024 during the last two years of domestic political crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. It joined the European Exchange Rate Mechanism II – the system designed to reduce exchange rate variability and achieve monetary stability – back in 2020. This is one of the key prerequisites for Eurozone entry. Bulgaria has met many, but not all, of the key Eurozone convergence criteria.
Inflation levels in Bulgaria are currently too high for the country to qualify for Eurozone entry. The lack of an elected government may delay several required structural reforms that cannot be ordered by a caretaker government; creating a further delay for Bulgaria’s plans beyond 2024. In addition, having no elected government is expected to delay the enactment of other reforms needed to unlock the next EU funding tranche under the country’s post-COVID National Recovery and Resilience Plan, Fitch Ratings said in a statement on January 25.
Bulgaria’s admission to the EU’s Schengen Zone, which will boost trade and tourism, was vetoed in December by both The Netherlands and Austria (which also vetoed Romania’s bid). The Netherlands was especially critical of Bulgaria’s lack of progress in tackling corruption and organized crime, even though the European Union’s own institutions expressed no such concerns.
Bilateral discussions are progressing with the Austrians – who are reportedly now impressed with the improved border controls on Bulgaria’s problematic Turkish border. Vienna is now advocating for increased EU funding for external border upgrades with the view that a new wave of illegal migrants could attempt to cross the border from Turkey.
Regional issues matter
The ongoing war in Ukraine, and the ongoing dispute with North Macedonia, remain important concerns in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia but have yet to become all-consuming issues for the Bulgarian government, at least at this time.
Bulgaria’s caretaker government has continued the work needed to ensure adequate energy supplies and to accelerate every possible regional grid/pipeline interconnection project that would allow the Balkan nation to access non-Russian oil and gas freely.
In military affairs, as a NATO member, Bulgaria’s support for its allies’ operations on the alliance’s southern flank is strong and essentially unrestricted, with materiel delivered to Greece’s Aegean ports flowing efficiently northward to the designated NATO battlegroups and bases in Bulgaria itself and to Romania.
Italy is the lead “framework” nation for the NATO multinational battlegroup assigned to Bulgaria, which achieved full operational capability in mid-December.
Bulgarian arms and fuel exports to Ukraine are said to have played an important role in the early months of the war before western supply routes were fully developed. Details are scarce but most of the Soviet-standard weapons/equipment were sent via third countries in order to avoid problems with Bulgaria’s pro-Russian political parties.
Bulgaria’s ongoing dispute with North Macedonia was partially resolved in July 2022, when both sides accepted the so-called “French Proposal”, which enabled the low-profile launch of EU accession talks for the North Macedonians, at least on paper. The arrangement was structured in a manner that will give Sofia the ability to block North Macedonia’s accession if controversial changes are not made to the latter’s constitution, which many observers see as politically impossible.
Whenever the time for final compromise is close, the issue may well become explosive enough to dismember a fragile Bulgarian coalition government.
If its spring, its election season
Bulgaria joins a growing list of nearby NATO countries heading for spring elections. Turkey is holding two rounds of presidential and parliamentary elections beginning on May 14, and Greece is expected to hold parliamentary elections sometime in the coming months, with many observers pointing to April 9 as the date for when Greeks will go to the polls, though this, as yet, remains unconfirmed. A second round under a new electoral law is expected shortly thereafter.