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End Of An Era? In Bulgarian Vote, Borisov's Party At Risk As Scandals Sap Support  


Supporters wearing T-shirts with pictures of former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov await a preelection rally in the city of Kardzhali on July 5.

Former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s party could fail to win the most votes in parliamentary elections for the first time in its history, potentially signaling the end of the charismatic leader’s decade-long dominance of Bulgaria’s political scene.

Two polls published on July 8 indicate that There Is Such A People, a party recently created by popular late-night talk show host and folk-pop singer Slavi Trifonov, could edge out Borisov’s GERB party by as much as 1 percentage point in the July 11 elections.

Borisov, 62, has towered over politics in the European Union and NATO member state since GERB won the 2009 parliamentary elections with nearly 40 percent of the vote, opening the door for the former fireman to become prime minister, a position he has held for nearly all of the ensuing 12 years.

However, growing popular frustration with corruption and low living standards is taking its toll on Borisov and GERB. Despite economic growth that exceeded 3 percent in five of the past six years, Bulgaria remains the poorest EU nation and is perceived as the most corrupt.

Slavi Trifonov risks losing support in the next election if he is seen as failing to create a coalition government after this one. The folk-pop singer, one analyst says, made little attempt to do so in April.
Slavi Trifonov risks losing support in the next election if he is seen as failing to create a coalition government after this one. The folk-pop singer, one analyst says, made little attempt to do so in April.

Even if GERB were to edge out Trifonov’s party, it would likely be unable to form a government, something it failed to do when it got 26 percent in inconclusive April elections.

“We're coming to an end of an era for sure,” Emilia Zankina, dean of Temple University Rome and a Bulgaria expert, told RFE/RL. “Borisov is finished. I don't see him becoming prime minister.”

GERB’s showing in April was its worst ever, coming months after a summer of mass protests over graft and amid calls for Borisov’s government to resign. The party’s support has continued to sag amid fresh scandals, finally falling below There Is Such A People just days before the July 11 vote, according to the polls.

The largely technocratic interim government formed in May by President Rumen Radev, who has tense ties with Borisov, has drawn attention to cases of alleged corruption and abuse of power under the previous GERB-led government, damaging the party’s already battered image.

In perhaps the biggest bombshell allegation, interim Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov backed opposition claims that Borisov’s government eavesdropped on other parties ahead of the April elections.

Other interim officials have accused Borisov’s government of awarding contracts worth more than $5 billion over just the past two years without a competitive process. They have also claimed that large sums of money for government contracts went to a handful of companies.

Five Things To Know About Bulgaria's Snap Elections
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Zankina said the interim government is “digging everywhere” for dirt on Borisov, going beyond its mandate to prepare the country for new elections.

Genoveva Petrova, managing director of Sofia-based polling agency Alpha Research, said the accusations have so far lacked strong evidence, leading some to believe the interim government is trying to influence the elections.

Amid the allegations, the United States announced sanctions on June 2 against two powerful Bulgarian figures for their “extensive roles in corruption," including Delyan Peevski, a tycoon who served in parliament.

The Bulgarian opposition accuses Peevski of controlling GERB from behind the scenes, including influencing the appointment of key officials such as the general prosecutor. The interim government immediately banned all state and local officials from working with them or companies associated with them.

The United States, furthermore, has shown support for Radev and the interim government. This has undermined one of Borisov’s key campaign arguments -- that he is the “pro-Western” candidate welcomed in Brussels and Washington.

GERB is forecast to win from 20.3 to 21.5 percent of the vote, according to polling data from Alpha Research and Gallup International, respectively, a drop of as much as 6 percentage points from April.

Meanwhile, There Is Such A People is expected to win from 21.3 to 21.8 percent, according to the same two polling agencies, an increase of more than 3 percentage points from the April election.

But even if they do post stronger results than in April, GERB’s opponents may still fail to form a government following the vote, analysts said, triggering yet another snap election in the autumn.

Trifonov is expected to invite Democratic Bulgaria, an alliance of liberal parties formed in 2018, as well as Stand Up! Get Out! -- a reform-focused party created last year by former ombudswoman Maya Manolova -- to form a coalition government.

Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up! Get Out! are expected to win about 12 and 5.4 percent of the vote, respectively, according to Alpha Research, giving the three parties around 40 percent combined.

A woman walks past an election billboard for the Democratic Bulgaria party in Sofia.
A woman walks past an election billboard for the Democratic Bulgaria party in Sofia.

That would still force Trifonov to win over members of other political organizations, such as the Socialist Party and the largely ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedom, to form a so-called “floating” majority government.

Zankina warned that Trifonov risks losing support in the next election if he is seen as failing to create a coalition government after this one. The showman, she said, made little attempt to do so in April.

Meanwhile, what policies Trifonov would pursue should he succeed in forming a government -- and whom he would choose to lead it – remained open questions just days before the election.

Trifonov, 54, largely avoided the media during the April and July campaigns, giving little insight into his political platform, seeming to focus instead on attacking GERB.

Voters attend a weekly demonstration against corruption in front of the Palace of Justice building in Sofia on July 7. The interim government formed in May by President Rumen Radev has drawn attention to cases of alleged corruption and abuse of power under the previous GERB-led government.
Voters attend a weekly demonstration against corruption in front of the Palace of Justice building in Sofia on July 7. The interim government formed in May by President Rumen Radev has drawn attention to cases of alleged corruption and abuse of power under the previous GERB-led government.

He has said he will seek to oust current Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev, who is considered close to Borisov and who was a target of the anti-corruption protests last summer.

Zankina said she expects any government led by Trifonov’s party to pursue cases against Borisov. However, she also said Trifonov could invite members of GERB who are “not tarnished” by corruption to serve in the government because his party doesn’t yet have the infrastructure to fill positions.

Parvan Simeonov, a Sofia-based political analyst for Gallup International, told RFE/RL that Trifonov could decide to keep members of the current caretaker government, which has won significant support for its crackdown on corruption.

Trifonov has said he does not want to be prime minister but has not indicated whom he would tap for the top post if he gets the chance.

If no government is formed and Bulgaria holds elections again in the fall, Simeonov said it would still be tough for Borisov to make a comeback.

People are “fed up” with the former prime minister and his way of running the country, he said, adding, “There is huge demand for change.”

RFE/RL Bulgarian Service Director Ivan Bedrov contributed to this report.
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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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