Bulgarians went to the polls on October 2 in the fourth time in 18 months in an election marked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, as well as political instability and economic hardships in the EU's poorest member.
With nearly all the votes counted, the center-right Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party of ex-premier Boyko Borisov appeared to be the winner.
Results showed GERB receiving 25.4 percent of the vote, edging out the reformist We Continue The Change (PP) party, founded a year ago by two Harvard graduates, by more than 5 percentage points.
Five other parties are expected to have made it into the 240-seat National Assembly, Bulgaria's unicameral parliament. They are the ethnic Turkish-backed Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) party with 13.7 percent; the Kremlin-friendly, far-right Revival party with 10.2 percent; the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) with 9.3 percent; the liberal, anti-corruption group Democratic Bulgaria with 7.5 percent; and the newly formed, nationalist Bulgarian Rise party on 4.6 percent.
The early elections came after a fragile coalition led by Kiril Petkov of the We Continue The Change party lost a no-confidence vote in June.
If these results are confirmed by the final count, Borisov, 63, will be handed a mandate to form his fourth cabinet. That could prove a tricky task, since most political parties have already ruled out cooperating with GERB, which presided over years of corruption that hampered development.
RFE/RL spoke with Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a lecturer at Oxford University, for his take on the elections and what may follow.
RFE/RL: With Borisov appearing set to make a return to power, is reform dead in Bulgaria?
Dimitar Bechev: I think it's dead in the short term, hopefully not in the middle and long term. Whatever cabinet emerges through the legislature, they won't have the votes to overhaul reforms of the economy and the rule of law.
It's also questionable whether the two main protagonists in the putative coalition -- Borisov's GERB and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms -- are interested in changing anything given the status quo benefited them profusely for over a decade.
So, even if there is a government, and that's a big if, at the moment, it's unclear what type of agenda it will have. Also, We Continue The Change didn't suffer a huge defeat as predicted. They won nearly a quarter of the vote and it is pro-Western in the true sense of the word, so, all is not lost.
RFE/RL: What are the chances that this vote ends the political instability in Bulgaria?
Bechev: It will be a four-way coalition or a minority government, which might fall, and we might have another election. But it's a tough call because in the past we've had stability, right, but stability was nothing more than a byword for corruption.
RFE/RL: What explains GERB's success and PP's drop in support? What swayed voters?
Bechev: There are several things working against PP. First of all, GERB is well entrenched in society, especially at the local level. And we shouldn't forget it controls all the big cities. And as such, they have access to resources, networks, which always works in their favor during election time -- and that's a situation that's been around for a longer period of time.
Secondly, it appears that main media outlets were more or less friendly toward Mr. Borisov and they were hedging their bets and didn't give the government an easy run.
And lastly, the situation in the economy with inflation spiraling out of control worked, by default, in the favor of the opposition. So, if you put all those three together: media coverage, party structure, and Borisov's appeal, and the worsening economic situation, including the somewhat hysterical debate around gas prices, you can understand why GERB did reasonably well at the polls. But, again, it might prove a Pyrrhic victory, because putting together a coalition will prove challenging.
RFE/RL: Will the outcome put Bulgaria on a more pro-Russian, anti-EU track? Does it mean anything for the country's foreign-policy trajectory?
Bechev: I don't think so. Well, it might be different in that Bulgaria won't be sticking its neck out as much as the previous government. As you remember, Kiril Petkov was behind the expulsion of 70 Russian diplomats and embassy staff. It was unprecedented. By comparison, Mr. Borisov refused to take any action after the Skripal attack of March 2018 (when Russia was accused of poisoning a former spy and his daughter in England, triggering sanctions by the West). So it's not that the next government will veto anything or be rocking the boat in Brussels, but I think they will be more risk averse and whatever they do will be to avoid the spotlight as much as possible.
RFE/RL: The far-right Revival party led by Kostadin Kostadinov appears to have done well, possibly doubling its vote tally from the last elections in November. The party has a very hard anti-EU, NATO, Washington line? How do you explain Revival's success?
Bechev: Well, the party has been opportunistic before the Ukraine war. It was all about COVID and anti-vaccine, anti-mask mandates, what have you, and they've adopted to the new situation to this segment of the electorate that has always been there to be sure…. Of course, there is a leadership dynamic. They have a younger leader who is capable of reaching out to this electorate and I have no doubt that Russia has helped him amplify his message especially over social networks to maximize their reach. But this vote has always been there. Remember in the 2006 presidential election, there was a runoff with a far-right and pro-Russian candidate, Volen Siderov. So Kostadin Kostadinov is the latest reincarnation of this sort of phenomenon that's been around in Bulgaria for quite some time.
RFE/RL: Revival wasn't the only pro-Kremlin party. Elsewhere, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has hurt Putin's support, especially among right-wing populists. That doesn't seem to be the case in Bulgaria. Why?
Bechev: Well, traditionally there's always been pro-Russian forces in the former communist party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, but there's been a disconnect between the leadership and the rank and file. But the party has been reduced to the fifth-largest force in Bulgaria. It's been a real downfall. As for public perceptions of Russia, sociological surveys have indicated that one-quarter to one-third of the electorate holds strong pro-Kremlin views. In other words, if you ask them, if they are for exiting NATO and the EU, or holding referendums on membership, they will say, "Yes." That's about the same percentage of the staunch pro-Western Bulgarians. The bulk of Bulgarians, however, are friendly toward Russia but they also support NATO and EU membership. But this hardcore bloc is still there, and they vote Revival. But those who were on the fence, thinking you can coexist with Russia, their numbers are still relatively high, but they have gone down since February 24. So, it's not a fixed picture. And you should remember this election was not explicitly about Russia versus the West, but it was about domestic and economic issues.