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Bulgaria's GERB Party Has Won The Elections. But Will Anyone Work With Them?

Boyko Borisov has served three terms as prime minister since 2009.
Boyko Borisov has served three terms as prime minister since 2009.

The center-right GERB party has won the latest Bulgarian elections, but no one, least of all the party's veteran leader, Boyko Borisov, is breaking out the champagne.

Despite winning the June 9 parliamentary elections with nearly 25 percent of the vote, the support for Borisov's party's is dwindling. Frequently accused of corruption and cronyism, GERB received just 530,000 votes, its weakest electoral performance in history.

There are now 68 GERB deputies in Bulgaria's 240-seat unicameral parliament, the National Assembly, one fewer than in the previous parliament and a far cry from the 100 seats it held during its strongest years. GERB is also shy of the 80 seats needed to block constitutional amendments or veto key appointments.

Borisov now finds himself in a precarious situation. He has already ruled himself out as a candidate for prime minister, saying he wanted to "calm the possibility of negotiations." His stance is not motivated by charity, however, but is simply an expression of the harsh fact that most major parties have declared that they will not back a government led by Borisov.

Murky Past

The 65-year-old politician, who has been prime minister three times since 2009, has been the most prominent and influential Bulgarian politician over the last decade and a half. While not particularly popular among Bulgarians, Borisov has always done just enough to keep his party in power.

A populist, he is a skilled political broker in Sofia and Brussels, doling out money and power to the extent that he has been accused of capturing Bulgaria's state institutions. Before coming to power, Borisov was a top police official, regularly appearing on TV to take on the bad guys -- despite accusations that he was linked to street gangs in the 1990s.

Under Borisov, Bulgaria fell lower in the Transparency International Corruption Index and the Reporters Without Borders free media index. Corruption remains pervasive and deep-rooted, with society at the mercy of influence by powerful oligarchs and the Kremlin.

Delyan Peevski has been targeted by U.S. sanctioned for corruption.
Delyan Peevski has been targeted by U.S. sanctioned for corruption.

The problem now -- and this is not a new problem -- is that GERB has a mandate from the country's president to form a government. Those negotiations are already under way and the party is trying to form a "cabinet of experts," with key ministers and a prime minister from GERB although not Borisov himself.

An obvious choice for GERB would be an alliance with the liberal Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which traditionally represents Bulgaria's ethnic Turk and Muslim populations. DPS has become the second-biggest party in parliament, with a record 47 seats, and has more political heft than ever before, making them indispensable for GERB.

The two parties do not have any significant ideological differences and have worked together in recent years, challenging the reformist We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB) coalition and making joint pledges to voters.

The party's new co-leader, Delyan Peevski, a controversial media tycoon accused of corruption and influence peddling, has already thrown his hat into the ring, even before the final election results were announced. "Mr. Borisov, I expect an invitation from you and all the Euro-Atlantic leaders to start a conversation about the future of our Motherland," Peevski said on June 11.

Trying To Form A Government

For Bulgaria's main political parties, an alliance between GERB and DPS is a done deal. "You have a meeting with Boyko Borisov, and you are met by Delyan Peevski," former Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov recently quipped.

Borisov, however, is wary of the DPS and Peevski. For many Bulgarians, the DPS is seen as a political instrument of the mafia, with its founder, Ahmed Dogan, accused of being an agent for the communist secret police.

Such suspicions only deepened when Peevski, the most powerful oligarch in the country, became the party's leader this year. Even though Peevski is reportedly close to Borisov, the DPS leader is seen as too toxic a bedfellow due to the repeated allegations of corruption against him, which have led to U.S. and British sanctions.

But beggars can't be choosers, and Borisov's critics say he has burnt too many bridges. In the June 9 elections, the PP-DB coalition lost more than half of their voters and now have 39 seats in parliament. Some of the party's leaders have linked that implosion to the last PP-DB-led government under Prime Minister Denkov, which had the support of GERB.

The breakup of that last government has led to bad blood between GERB and PP-DB, with Borisov blaming the PP-DB for having to call early elections and PP-DB blaming Borisov, saying that he wanted to curtail their influence and was no longer complying with their demands for reform.

As a result, PP-DB has said it will not work with GERB to form a new government. The fourth-place finisher in the elections, the pro-Russian Revival party, with 38 seats, has said it will also remain in opposition.

For now, Bulgaria is being run by a caretaker government. If GERB fails to form a government, then the second-place party, the DPS, will be given a mandate by the president. In recent years, there have been governments formed on the second or third mandate.

Borisov has been here before. He has been politically isolated since the elections of April 2021, when he lost the prime minister's post. But his options now look more limited than ever. If he can't form a government, he would have to call early elections once again, and those would be Bulgaria's seventh in the last three years.

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