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Post-Election Report: 2013 Bulgarian Parliamentary Elections

- May 20, 2013

We are pleased to continue our series of Election Reports with the following post-election report of last week’s Bulgarian parliamentary elections from political scientists Petia Kostadinova and Maria Popova.


On May 12, 2013, Bulgarian citizens took part in the country’s 8th legislative elections since the end of communism to select 240 representatives to the National Assembly, Bulgaria’s unicameral legislature. Despite a series of wiretapping scandals and a pre-election discovery of (possibly illegally) overprinted ballots, international observers have concluded that the elections were generally fair and competitive. The elections produced no clear winners, but marked several firsts in Bulgaria’s post-Communist democratic experience:

  • The outgoing incumbent captured the biggest share of the votes for the first time since competitive multiparty elections were re-introduced in 1990;
  • For the first time since 1990, nearly half the electorate stayed home and did not cast a vote;
  • For the first time since 1990, the two most likely coalitions will be deadlocked in a 120-120 tie in parliament;
  • For the first time since 2001, no new parties burst onto the political scene.

More broadly, the election: 1) demonstrated the increasing polarization of the Bulgarian party system; 2) revealed further legitimization of the radical nationalists and their possible ascent to the position of kingmaker in Bulgarian politics; 3) highlighted the continued intense confrontation between the judicial and political branches (the judiciary is highly politicized, but also highly autonomous); and 4) suggests that the combination of rampant political corruption and unregulated wiretapping, is turning (has turned?) Bulgaria into what Darden (2001) has called a “blackmail state”, where politicians eavesdrop on each other’s conversations in order to maintain loyalty among allies and inflict political damage on adversaries.[i]

Election Results

At 51.33%, the turnout for these elections was dismally low by any standards. It was not only the lowest ever in any Bulgarian elections but also the lowest in any democratic legislative elections in the world in recent years. The voter turnout in Slovakia’s 2012 legislative elections (59.11%) was also one of the lowest in Central and Eastern Europe, and only referenda have historically lower turnouts, including one in Bulgaria on January 27, 2013 (20.22%).[ii] Only four parties gathered enough votes to pass the 4% electoral threshold and no party received the majority of the vote. Close to one quarter of the voters (24.3%) cast ballots for parties that did not get any seats in the National Assembly, a significant waste of votes under a proportional representation system.


In 2009, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB)’s 39.7% result allowed it to form a single party government, which governed, with Ataka’s frequent informal support, until the Prime Minister’s resignation in late February, 2013.  This time around, GERB received 30.5% of the vote and will have 97 seats in the National Assembly. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) was the main opposition to GERB in the last four years, and while it was not able to emerge as the elections’ frontrunner, it had a strong showing, with 26.6% of the votes and it will be the second largest party in the next parliament with 84 seats.

The third largest party in the National Assembly, with 36 seats, is the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which derives its support primarily from Bulgaria’s ethnic Turkish minority. In fact, 49.1% of the overseas ballots, much of them from Bulgarian nationals residing in Turkey, went for DPS. The fourth party elected to parliament after the 2013 elections with 7.3% of the vote, is Ataka, an extreme-right wing nationalist formation that first entered parliament in 2005 and whose leader Volen Siderov was a runner up in the 2006 presidential elections.

As the next table shows, three of the four parties elected to the National Assembly lost voters since the 2009 elections. Only BSP can claim it increased its electoral support, by about 195,000 votes.  The Socialists also more than doubled their seats in parliament, gaining 44 seats. While Ataka also gained seats, 2, it actually lost electoral support, by about 137,000 voters.  However, the National Front for Bulgaria’s Salvation, which splintered from Ataka in 2011 received 3.7% and barely missed the 4% threshold.  Thus, we could argue that the radical nationalist vote actually increased from 9.4% in 2009 to 11% in 2013.  GERB lost close to 600,000 voters and 20 seats, while DPS lost one seat and also experienced a decline in the number of share of voters who supported it.


Possible election outcomes

There are a series of possible outcomes of these elections.

  1. Elections are declared invalid by the Constitutional Court due to ballot irregularities
  2. Single-party minority GERB government (97/240 seats)
  3. Coalition government (GERB-Ataka: 120/240 seats; BSP-DPS coalition: 120/240 seats; ‘Expert’ government supported by BSP, DPS, and Ataka: 143/240 seats).

As of May 15th, Boyko Borisov has announced that GERB will pursue the first option.  If the Constitutional Court does not quickly invalidate the May 12 election result, Borisov intends to attempt to form a government.  However, with GERB not even close to having a majority of seats in the National Assembly, a single party minority government is an unlikely outcome, as both BSP and DPS, and seemingly Ataka are strongly opposed to GERB continuing to govern (alone).  In the meantime, the Socialists, DPS and Ataka are exploring the expert cabinet option, but the likelihood of success is slim.  Neither DPS nor Ataka can afford to be seen entering into a coalition that includes the other, and hoodwinking their electorates appears next to impossible.  There are two likelier coalitions. BSP and DPS have frequently collaborated in the past and were part of the same tri-partite ruling coalition (along with NDSV) between 2005 and 2009. Both parties are often categorized as left of center and are seen as ‘natural’ partners for a coalition, partnership that is driven by their mutual despise for GERB and Ataka.  Yet, these two parties control only 120 seats (50%) in the National Assembly. The other 120 seats are controlled by GERB and Ataka. Ataka, which entered the National Assembly in 2005 has not been part of any formal coalition, but it is well known that it was their support for GERB’s policies that kept that government in power for much of 2009-2013.  The most unsettling outcome would be if the two biggest parliamentary factions (GERB and BSP) attempt to add votes to their 120 coalitions by coaxing individual MPs into crossing the floor.  Both Ataka’s and BSP’s leaders have alleged that GERB representatives have approached Ataka and BSP MP-elects with “interesting offers”.[iii] Whatever government is formed in Bulgaria in the next couple of weeks, it will have a weak mandate and will represent a small fraction of the population.


The election results and the prospects of unstable government are still to be fully analyzed. Yet, less than a week after ballots were cast, we can offer some preliminary discussion about the implications of these elections.

Party System Polarization

The election results confirm that BSP and DPS as the only two parties with a continuous presence in Bulgarian politics since 1990. BSP, the successor of the Communist Party, has been elected with varying success to every National Assembly since 1990 and has been a part of (or supported) five governments – out of 11 since the transition to democracy. DPS, the only political party that emerged during the democratic transition and that is still viable, did not win seats to the legislature at the 1997 elections, but has been part of every other National Assembly, and has participated in (or supported) four of the post-communist governments.

GERB and Ataka are relative newcomers, although there are indications that Ataka is here to stay, with its support among voters reemerging after the party’s weak performance in the 2011 local elections. GERB’s emergence on the political scene followed by weakening electoral support is yet another manifestation of the inability of ‘normal’ center-right parties to be successfully established in Bulgaria. In fact, the 2013 elections indicate the complete decimation of the leftover and splinter political groups of Union of Democratic Forces (SDS- later United Democratic Forces (ODS)), the main communist opposition party in the early years of Bulgarian democracy. In the absence of established coherent mass legislative parties on the right, populists and extremists dominate this part of the ideological spectrum.

The distribution of seats between the two most likely coalitions — on different sides of the ideological spectrum — indicates not only a legislative deadlock but also the high level of polarization of Bulgarian politics. Ideological divergence has been a feature of Bulgaria’s democracy since the early years and contributed to a slow and ineffective economic transition until an economic policy consensus emerged in 1997-2001.[iv] Yet, there has been a trend towards an even greater polarization in recent elections.

Using data from the Comparative Manifesto Project (CMP) which codes election platforms on a series of issues, including each party’s position on the Left-Right ideological spectrum, the figure below shows one indicator of the increased polarization among legislative parties in Bulgaria. The data plotted are the ideological distance between the most right and the most left party that entered the National Assembly after each legislative election between 1990 and 2009, all the years for which CMP data are available. For clarity of presentation, the absolute values of the ideological distance scores are shown.


As seen above, the initial consensus on the need for political transition was quickly followed by growing differences among parties, mostly on the nature of economic transformation. The brief (relative) consensus that emerged after the economic collapse in 1997 was followed by another trend towards sharp ideological differences in 2005 and 2009.

While CMP data are not yet available for the 2013 elections, a look at the most recent party manifestos indicates that the differences among parties remains very strong, especially with respect to the most pressing economic issues. As the incumbent, GERB’s platform stresses its achievements over the past four years and emphasizes continuity in its policies. GERB’s economic program focuses on de-regulation of business, attracting foreign investment, entering the Eurozone, and a balanced budget. The program also stresses providing incentives for employers and linking the indexing of pensions to economic growth. GERB’s spending priorities are restricted primarily to utilizing European Union structural funds for infrastructure development.

BSP’s platform has a distinctly different tone, stressing throughout that the role of government is one of regulator, investor and owner. The Socialists call for a definitive change in the neo-liberal economic model, emphasizing their support for the Europe 2020 program to improve social inclusion of all societal groups. BSP’s election manifesto also has a sizeable section on increasing investment in the country’s human resources through changes in the health, education, and social welfare systems.

A second distinct theme in the BSP program, one that finds resonance with DPS’ platform, is the need to improve democracy in Bulgaria, pointing out the erosion of democratic practices and values under the GERB government. Democracy, civil society and separation of powers are leading themes in DPS’ platform, which goes as far as to openly call for ‘restoring’ democracy in Bulgaria. With respect to economic priorities, similar to the socialists, DPS calls for increased government investment, including in the development of new economic sectors, and for providing economic stimuli for businesses.

Ataka’s election platform is the longest and the least specific, consisting of dozens of pages refuting the past 23 years of economic policies in Bulgaria, printing the names of all previous government officials whom Ataka holds responsible for the country’s economic situation. In this respect, similar to BSP and DPS, Ataka rejects the neo-liberal economic model but this party goes much further to call for the nationalization of industry and the expulsion of foreign owned businesses. Aside from free education and healthcare, the party offers no specifics in its economic program.

Overall, the platforms of the political parties elected to the National Assembly provide distinct choices between maintaining the status quo of economic policies (GERB) and changing it by either softening the balanced-budget-austerity paradigm (BSP, DPS) or by replacing the entire economic system (Ataka).  Of course, Ataka’s economic proposals are not realistic but increased government spending for social programs and education is an alternative that is appealing to many. This said, even though Bulgaria is not in the Eurozone — although the country’s currency has been pegged to the Euro (originally the Deutsche Mark) since 1997 — it is not at all clear if any government will be able to drastically change the country’s economic policy.

Ataka’s Legitimization

These elections have heralded Ataka’s emancipation as a fully legitimate political actor.  When the radical nationalist formation led by Volen Siderov surprisingly gained 8.9% of the vote in 2005, all mainstream parties denounced it as a danger to Bulgarian democracy and the famed “Bulgarian model” of civil interethnic relations.  All parliamentary represented parties refused to work with Ataka and sought to marginalize it in the legislature.  During Ataka’s second stint in parliament (2009-2013), the governing GERB frequently relied on Ataka votes to pass its legislative initiatives, but refused to enter into a formal coalition.  After Ataka activists provoked a violent confrontation with worshippers at a Sofia mosque in May 2011, the mainstream parties in the legislature passed a declaration condemning the incident and denouncing Ataka’s extremism.  For the past few days, however, Ataka sources report that Siderov is enjoying being courted from all sides.[v]  Not only is Ataka now seen as a potential participant in two of the three possible formal coalitions, but it has assumed the role of kingmaker.  For the past 20 years this role belonged Ataka’s archenemy, DPS.  This shift marks Ataka’s full incorporation into Bulgaria’s party system. For more on Ataka, see Kavalski 2007, Ghodsee, 2008, Popova 2013.[vi]

Confrontation between the Judicial Branch and the Political Branches

Bulgarian politics have also been characterized by a high level of inter-branch confrontation since the mid-1990s.  Each government since Zhan Videnov’s 1995-1997 government has been involved in a tense relationship with at least one judicial actor: the courts, the prosecution, or the investigation.  The pattern has been the following: the government attempts to use the judiciary to achieve particular political or policy goals; the judiciary resists, accusing the government of encroaching on its autonomy and independence; the governing majority politicizes judicial appointments and pushes through partisans to leadership positions within the judiciary; time and again, however, as soon as they are appointed, the partisans shift loyalties and inter-branch confrontation continues unabated.  This process has been described at length by Schoenfelder (2005) and Popova (2010).[vii] In other words, the Bulgarian judiciary is highly politicized, but it is also considerably independent from the other branches.

The 2013 parliamentary election campaign provided additional confirmation of the existence of this pattern.  In December 2012, the Supreme Judicial Council elected a new prosecutor general—a judge from Plovdiv, named Sotir Tzatzarov.  Tzatzarov was widely perceived to be chosen for his closeness to the ruling GERB, which then lobbied heavily for his election to the top prosecution job.  However, during the spring election campaign it became increasingly evident that the prosecution, under Tzatzarov’s leadership, is actually undermining GERB.  It opened and publicized several investigations into illegal wiretapping of cabinet ministers and other politicians by the Ministry of the Interior, headed by Borisov’s closest political ally, Tzvetan Tzvetanov.  The wiretapping scandals became the central issue of the campaign.  Finally, only a couple of days before the election, the prosecution broke a story to the media that it was investigating the possibly illegal overprinting of 350,000 ballots at a printing press owned by a GERB municipal councilor.  When the press owner claimed that the ballots were irregular copies meant to be destroyed, the prosecution immediately responded by disclosing evidence from its investigation that the ballots were packaged for shipping and labeled with voting region destinations.  The prosecution’s loquaciousness provided immediate fodder for the opposition parties, who speculated that GERB would use the additional ballots to attempt to steal the elections.  It is precisely this incident that will now form the basis for GERB’s constitutional complaint seeking to vacate the election results.  In a press conference on May 15, Borisov claimed that the opposition parties who discussed the story at press conferences on the day before the election violated a constitutional ban on campaigning in the last 24 hours before an election.  Moreover, Borisov directly accused the prosecution of having cost GERB “5-6%” with the ballot printing investigation alone.  The prosecutor general has answered with an announcement that the prosecution has investigated the allegations of illegal campaigning in the last 24 hours of the electoral campaign and has concluded that no laws have been breached.  The fight is on.

Bulgaria as a “blackmail state”

In a widely-cited article on President Kuchma’s regime in Ukraine, Keith Darden argued that rampant political and bureaucratic corruption were not eroding state-capacity as conventional wisdom had it, but actually allowed the Kuchma regime to build state capacity.  Politicians and bureaucrats were allowed to engage in corruption with impunity as long as they remained politically loyal and implemented the government’s policy agenda.  Evidence of their corrupt activities, however, was duly collected, often through illegal wiretaps, and would be used to blackmail them into staying in line with the political leadership.

Over the last couple of years, but especially during the 2013 parliamentary campaign, unsettling evidence emerged that Bulgaria may fit Darden’s blackmail state model.  Several wiretap recordings leaked to the media reveal conversations among the Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, prosecutors, and heads of bureaucratic agencies, which allude to influence peddling, obstruction of justice in corruption prosecutions, fixed public tenders, and partisan allocation of jobs.  While the authenticity of the recordings has not been proven, most alleged participants in these conversations do not bother to issue denials.  Rather, public discussion has focused on who has made/ordered the recordings, who has leaked them to the press, and who is the biggest beneficiary of a particular recording.  This suggests that legal and illegal wiretapping may be used potentially on a regular scale to settle political scores with adversaries and guarantee intra-party loyalty and discipline. This is a particularly disturbing trend, which may be partially responsible for the record low turnout.

Concluding thoughts

The 2013 legislative elections in Bulgaria brought the country to the attention of the international news media as the latest example of a European country gripped by scandal, gridlock and potential for instability. No long lasting coalitions are possible and the country’s elite is now also faced with two unprecedented options of invalidating the elections or bringing in Ataka to support an expert government, and both outcomes are sure to keep Bulgaria in the news. From a scholarly perspective, the trends of voter disengagement, low turnout, political polarization, inter-institutional confrontation, and the use of wiretapping for political blackmail are most troubling.

[i] Darden, Keith. 2001. “Blackmail as a Tool of State Domination: Ukraine Under Kuchma,” East European Constitutional Review 10(2/3).

[ii] International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) Election Guide http://www.electionguide.org/

[iii] Trud.bg, May 15, 2013: http://www.trud.bg/Article.asp?ArticleId=1990658

[iv] Frey, Timothy. 2010. Building States and Markets After Communism: the perils of polarized democracy. Cambridge University Press.

[v] Mediapool, May 14, 2013

[vi] Ghodsee, Kristen. 2008. “Left Wing, Right Wing, Everything: Xenophobia, Neo-totalitarianism and Populist Politics in Contemporary Bulgaria,” Problems of Post-Communism, 55(3) May-June 2008: 26-39; Kavalski, Emilian. 2007. “Do Not Play with Fire”: The End of the Bulgarian Ethnic Model or the Persistence of Inter-Ethnic Tensions in Bulgaria?”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 27(1):25-36; Popova, Maria. Nd. “Who supports Ataka? Analysis of individual level support for Bulgaria’s radical nationalists”. Working paper

[vii] Schoenfelder, Bruno. 2005. Judicial Independence in Bulgaria: A Tale of Splendour and Misery”, Europe-Asia Studies 57(1): 61–92; Popova, Maria. 2010. “Be Careful What You Wish For: A Cautionary Tale of Post-Communist Judicial Empowerment”, Demokratizatsiya, 18(1):56-73.