Bulgaria holds third election in a year

Bulgaria's incumbent President Rumen Radev casts his ballot to vote for the first-round of the presidential election and the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Sofia on Nov 14, 2021. (NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV / AFP)

Bulgarians are voting again in their third general elections this year under abysmal conditions. The poorest nation in the European Union has one of the world’s worst COVID-19-related death rates, is struggling to access the EU’s pandemic aid and is in a state of permanent political crisis.

Former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has run the country for most of the last decade as it consistently ranked among the most corrupt in the 27-nation bloc. He is poised to win Sunday’s ballot but unlikely to find enough support to create a government. 

People are also casting ballots for president, with incumbent Rumen Radev — a bitter rival of Borissov — tipped to win

People are also casting ballots for president, with incumbent Rumen Radev — a bitter rival of Borissov — tipped to win.

Bulgaria wants to win membership into the euro — it’s been Borissov’s pitch to voters for years — but it’s not looking good for this Balkan nation of 7 million people as there may be little political will among the euro-sharing nations to accept new members.

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Parties in a divided opposition have pledged to form an alliance without Borissov and yet are still bickering over who should lead the next cabinet and how to fight organized crime and graft, which has suffocated the economy and prevented Bulgaria from joining the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone.

The political turmoil is taking a toll. Widespread distrust in institutions and poor health-care funding has made many Bulgarians skeptical about COVID-19 shots and as a result it’s the least vaccinated country in the EU with more people dying per capita than almost anywhere else on the globe.

The caretaker cabinet is also locked in tough negotiations for tapping the EU’s recovery fund as it waits for a parliament that will guarantee rule-of-law and environmental reforms that the bloc’s executive demands.

With polls showing Borissov’s Gerb party ahead, there are three possible scenarios. Investors would favor a clear majority either way as it would provide a degree of stability that markets prefer.

Borissov may get support from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms party for a minority government in which it would pass legislation by cobbling together majorities for individual issues. Opposition parties, however, are unlikely to drop their boycott long enough for Gerb to survive a confidence vote.

READ MORE: Deadlock pushes Bulgaria closer to its third poll this year

The upstart We’re Continuing the Change party, known as PP, is trying to carve a centrist path. It’s finding traction among voters disillusioned with other protest parties that vowed to fight graft. 

Led by former government ministers — Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev — PP could pull off an upset that puts them in a position to lead talks to form a coalition. They could also find common ground with other anti-graft parties including the Democratic Bulgaria coalition, the Socialists and the anti-establishment ITN.

The possibility of yet another election early next year cannot be discounted given how entrenched political positions and the unlikelihood of a clear winner emerging. Paralysis could delay the approval of the 2022 budget, further hinder talks to secure EU money and hamper efforts for Bulgaria to get a grip on its deepening struggle with COVID-19.