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In Bulgaria’s third election in 2021, another new party won the most seats. But can it form a government?

New parties do well by taking aim at corruption, then struggle to govern.

- November 19, 2021

“Change Continues” not only is the name of the winner of Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Bulgaria, but it also is a fitting description of a country that has held three elections with three different winners in the past seven months.

Why the electoral churn, and what happens now? First, an inconclusive election in April resulted in an impasse and a caretaker government assembled by the president. Another inconclusive election in July and another caretaker government then led to elections in November.

Bulgaria wasn’t able to form a government. What happens now?

The winner of the Nov. 14 election, a party founded less than two months ago by two business executives who loudly proclaim their Harvard credentials, is the latest in a string of new parties periodically erupting in Bulgaria over the past 20 years. But will Change Continues manage to form a government and address the serious problems facing Bulgarian society? The track record for new parties isn’t promising.

Bulgarians have flocked to “new” parties

Change Continues attracted a quarter of the vote with a familiar recipe: a strong dose of anti-corruption messaging combined with a claim of competence, a dash of celebrity and a “newness” appeal. The party also benefited from a bandwagon effect. As in Slovakia’s 2020 elections, disenchanted voters were willing to vote for whichever new leaders seemed to have the best chance of sorting out the country’s mess and converged on the party with the most momentum.

Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, the two entrepreneurs who founded Change Continues, made their names as ministers in the caretaker government formed in May. In a few short months, their popularity rose after they attacked bureaucratic inefficiencies and took an uncompromising approach to corruption. Rather than join another caretaker government in September, they chose to run in the next elections — and promised to solve the country’s endemic problems.

But Bulgarian voters have heard this before. The elections in April and July 2021 were focused on three different new parties, which together won a third of the vote. The most popular was There is Such a People, formed by musician and talk show host Slavi Trifonov; the party scooped up 24 percent of the July vote. But Trifonov failed to shape a new government and ran a lackluster fall campaign. The party’s 9 percent vote in November still may give Trifonov a kingmaker role in the new parliament, however.

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The rise of Change Continues also undercut other fledgling parties that showed promise earlier in the year. Stand Up! Thugs Out! lost all of its parliamentary seats, and support for Democratic Bulgaria fell by half in the November election.

Bulgarian voters may have expressed a desire for change, but they didn’t choose to cast their ballots for extremists. Far-right parties suffered from personality feuds and splits, abandoning the brief unity that gained them a slice of power in 2017. In the November election, they virtually disappeared. A pro-Russian and anti-European Union party, Revival, did win 13 seats in parliament. But its 5 percent vote share underscores that most Bulgarians are happy to remain part of the E.U.

Voters also sought stability

Once the new kid on the block himself, three-time prime minister Boyko Borissov has been the dominant figure in Bulgarian politics for over a decade. His GERB party came in second but experienced a drop from 32.7 percent in the 2017 election to 26.2 percent in April’s election, then managing to win around 23 percent in both July and November. Over the past five years, the party lost voters who became disillusioned with its visible graft and cronyism. But strong local networks stabilized the party’s position, and GERB also got a boost after other parties failed to form a government in 2021. Borissov may be tainted by corruption allegations, but he seems to offer a stability that many Bulgarians want as the country grapples with high coronavirus rates and serious economic challenges.

Support for another party often accused of corruption, the Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF), also held up. It won over 13 percent of the November vote and was the only party to increase its share of seats. MRF relied heavily on strong partisan attachment among ethnic Turkish voters, and the party for the first time outperformed the once mighty Bulgarian Socialist Party.

Some Socialist voters probably were attracted to Change Continues by Petkov’s claim to offer “left politics with right instruments,” but the Socialists also lost votes due to the divisive leadership of Korneliya Ninova, who seemed keener on infighting within her party than mobilizing voters.

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Can Bulgaria form a stable government?

The Bulgarian constitution allows only a week for the winner to form a government after receiving a mandate from the president. The proposed government then needs majority support in the 240-seat parliament. The prospect of a fourth election in early 2022 cannot be discounted if politicians aren’t willing to compromise.

The two leaders of Change Continues appear to be less polarizing than past election winners, but they may find it difficult to overcome the antagonism between the Socialists (with 26 seats) and Democratic Bulgaria (16 seats). They will also need to bring in the erratic Trifonov (whose party has 25 seats) to add to the 67 seats held by Change Continues.

The precedents of anti-corruption politicians going straight into government do not bode well for Petkov and Vassilev, however. If they form a government with their fragile new party, they risk repeating the “live fast, die young” cycle common to other newcomer parties in the region. But if they fail to form a government, they risk Bulgarians’ backlash — just as Trifonov did when he failed to bring about change after his party won in July.

It seems that these elections confirm one thing about Bulgarian politics: Change continues.

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Kevin Deegan-Krause (@DeeganKrause) is professor of political science at Wayne State University

Tim Haughton (@HaughtonTim) is associate professor of European politics at the University of Birmingham.

Emilia Zankina is dean of Temple University Rome.