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Anti-Graft Party Founded By Harvard Graduates Leads Electoral Race By Tapping Into Bulgarians' Frustrations

Kiril Petkov, the man tipped to become Bulgaria's next prime minister, gives a thumbs-up sign after casting his ballot in national elections on November 14.
Kiril Petkov, the man tipped to become Bulgaria's next prime minister, gives a thumbs-up sign after casting his ballot in national elections on November 14.

Will the third time prove the charm?

Bulgaria has held three parliamentary polls this year to break a political impasse after the country was rocked by nationwide protests that started in 2020. The protests were sparked by public anger over years of corruption, resulting in the end of the rule of Boyko Borisov, the country's longtime prime minister, in April of this year.

The two previous polls in April and July ended inconclusively, with new anti-graft parties polling well but not well enough to cobble together a coalition to unseat Borisov's center-right GERB party.

Just like the last poll, a new anti-corruption party appears to have come out the winner in the November 14 elections to the 240-seat parliament, the National Assembly.

But unlike that last election, this new anti-graft party, We Continue the Change (PP), may have enough allies to forge a coalition.

Graft has long been the dominant political topic in the EU's poorest country, and voters have pinned their hopes on successive leaders pledging to clean up public life, only to see administrations crashing in scandals.

For many in Bulgaria, endemic corruption is to blame for low living standards in the Balkan country of 7 million people where the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is only 55 percent of the EU average. That frustration has spawned a new wave of political parties, bringing in new faces, and new hopes, largely unfulfilled so far.

With turnout in the November 14 poll estimated at only about 40 percent, Bulgarians are showing signs of voter fatigue. But they are eager as well to see a new government formed quickly to tackle a dire COVID-19 situation, surging energy prices, and widespread corruption.

Whether the PP is able to succeed where other upstart parties in Bulgaria have so far fallen short remains unclear, but the party appears to have more options to succeed.

From Harvard To Government Office

The PP was formed in September by Kiril Petkov, 41, and Asen Vasilev, 44, two graduates of Harvard University. Petkov, who relinquished Canadian dual citizenship to qualify for office in Bulgaria, has invested in start-ups and ran a successful probiotics firm. Vasilev is also an entrepreneur and business consultant.

Petkov and Vasilev served without party affiliation for some four months as interim economy and finance ministers earlier this year, scoring points with the public for their efforts to uncover wrongdoing in state institutions under Borisov.

Kiril Petkov (right) and Asen Vssilev in a buoyant mood on election night.
Kiril Petkov (right) and Asen Vssilev in a buoyant mood on election night.

In May, Petkov found that the state-run Bulgarian Development Bank, set up to support small business, had extended 946 million levs ($559.43 million) in loans to just eight companies.

Vasilev boasted of boosting tax collection by 2.5 billion levs by increasing controls on big businesses that operate with public and EU funds.

Petkov and Vasilev offered a recipe of practical policies that likely resonated with voters, said Aleksey Pamporov, a political scientist at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

"We were all laughing when they stated that they will do 'leftist' policy with 'right' instruments," but that is exactly what they are proposing. "In terms of economy, energy, business, tourism they are very right-orientated, but in terms of social policies, education, health care, they lean left," Pamporov told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service ahead of the vote.

According to polling from Gallup International, 35 percent of Bulgarians who, in July, voted for another anti-corruption upstart, There Is Such A People (ITN), switched over to PP for these elections. And among PP voters, 79 percent favored Rumen Radev, the incumbent president who was seeking a second five-year term in the presidential election also held on November 14.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev talks to the press after voting in presidential and parliamentary elections at a polling station in Sofia on November 14.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev talks to the press after voting in presidential and parliamentary elections at a polling station in Sofia on November 14.

Radev, a harsh critic of Borisov, won 49.2 percent of the vote and is tipped to win a second five-year term in the largely ceremonial post in a runoff set for November 21.

What Happened To There Is Such A People?

In many ways, the rise of the PP mirrors that of another anti-corruption Bulgarian upstart, ITN.

ITN was created by Stanislav "Slavi" Trifonov, a popular late-night talk show host and folk-pop singer, shortly before the corruption scandal in 2020 sparked weekslong mass protests against Borisov's government.

Stanislav "Slavi" Trifonov (file photo)
Stanislav "Slavi" Trifonov (file photo)

Analysts said Trifonov's entrance onto Bulgaria's national stage represents the continuation of a decades-old effort to create a viable antiestablishment party in Bulgaria as much as it does the spread of populism.

Central and Eastern Europe is no stranger to new parties using an anti-corruption or celebrity platform to achieve electoral success.

That was the avenue to help the former tsar of Bulgaria, Simeon II, win the 2001 election and Borisov himself succeeded in a landslide in 2009 by campaigning against corruption.

Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov
Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov

The anti-corruption message was also central to two new parties that secured seats in parliament earlier this year: Democratic Bulgaria (DB) and Maya Manolova's Stand Up! Thugs Out! (ISMV), which won nearly 10 percent and 5 percent of the vote, respectively, in the April 4 vote.

Democratic Bulgaria's co-chair, Hristo Ivanov, and Manolova both were skilled at staging initiatives that exposed corrupt practices.

In the July elections, ITN outpolled -- barely -- GERB, but failed to form a government. As a result, its support has plummeted.

Trifonov's party had topped the July vote with 24 percent but partial results from the November 14 voting show it now getting just 9.8 percent.

It may be down, but not out. ITN will likely be a key partner for the We Continue the Change front-runners in any coalition talks, along with the Socialists, with 10.3 percent of the vote, and the anti-graft DB -- a coalition of three leftist parties – with 6 percent.

"Forming a government...will be more complicated because at least four parties will be needed for a majority," Dobromir Zhivkov, a political analyst with the Market Links pollster, told Reuters.

The ISMV, another new anti-graft party, appeared to have secured less than 4 percent, the threshold needed to win seats in parliament.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Renaissance, an openly pro-Russian party that has called for Bulgaria to exit both NATO and the EU, appeared set to have crossed the 4 percent threshold.

Borisov's center-right GERB party was slated to win 22.2 percent of the vote, good enough for second place, but given its political isolation looks to be shut out of any coalition talks.

Petkov promised on November 14 to be open to dialogue and compromise in coalition talks but said his party would not renege on pledges to overhaul the judiciary and clamp down on corruption.

"Bulgaria is headed onto a new path," said Petkov, who hopes to become prime minister and to have his PP co-founder, Vasilev, as finance minister.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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    RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service

    RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service relaunched in 2019 after a 15-year absence, providing independent news and original analysis to help strengthen a media landscape weakened by the monopolization of ownership and corruption.

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