Bulgarians head to repeat elections amid swirl of corruption claims

Polls suggest second vote in three months may not break parliamentary deadlock

Former Bulgaria’s prime minister and leader of Gerb party Boyko Borisov (right) poses with a supporter during a pre-election rally in the city of Kardzhali on July 5th. Photograph: Nikolay Doychinov/AFP

Former Bulgaria’s prime minister and leader of Gerb party Boyko Borisov (right) poses with a supporter during a pre-election rally in the city of Kardzhali on July 5th. Photograph: Nikolay Doychinov/AFP

 

Bulgaria is preparing to vote in its second parliamentary election in three months, but it may not break the deadlock between the scandal-plagued Gerb party of long-time premier Boyko Borisov and new parties that pledge to replace the ruling elite and clean up corruption.

Polls put the centre-right Gerb neck-and-neck on about 22 per cent with There is Such a People (ITN), a party formed by television celebrity Slavi Trifonov to challenge a political establishment that is widely mistrusted.

Gerb appears to have lost some support since taking 26.2 per cent in April’s election, while ITN seems poised to improve on its 17.7 per cent tally amid a stream of revelations that have only strengthened many Bulgarians’ suspicions about high-level graft.

The Socialists and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which is closely linked to Bulgaria’s Turkish minority, are also expected to enter parliament, along with Stand Up! Mafia Out! and Democratic Bulgaria, two smaller parties whose anti-corruption agenda makes them natural coalition partners for ITN.

Analysts say it will probably be difficult for any bloc to form an alliance with a majority in parliament, however, so a continued period of political uncertainty is likely just as Bulgaria tries to overcome another wave of coronavirus and revive its economy.

Protests

ITN and several other parties were bolstered by or sprang from major protests last summer against graft and cronyism in the EU’s poorest state.

Thousands rallied in the capital, Sofia, to demand the government’s resignation, but Mr Borisov weathered the storm with a pledge to provide stability during the pandemic and to overhaul the nation’s constitution.

The demonstrations fizzled out as the coronavirus crisis ground on, but they revealed deep dissatisfaction with Gerb among younger urban voters that has only been exacerbated by this year’s political impasse and a string of new scandals.

Critics of Gerb, which has been in power for most of the last decade, recently claimed that a state development bank set up to help small businesses had doled out some €500 million to just eight firms – four allegedly linked to one tycoon – and that dozens of opposition politicians were illegally wiretapped before the April elections.

Mr Borisov denies any involvement in corruption and accuses the caretaker government – which was appointed by his political foe, Bulgarian president Rumen Radev – of trying to besmirch Gerb’s reputation before Sunday’s vote.

In a further blow to the EU and Nato state’s standing, however, Washington imposed sanctions last month on three influential Bulgarians and 64 companies associated with them due to alleged corruption, while also barring three former Bulgarian officials and their families from US territory over graft suspicions.

Critics accuse Mr Borisov (62) of presiding over a crooked system that enriches only a tiny elite, and last June he was angered by the publication of photographs that appeared to show him asleep at his residence beside a handgun and a nightstand packed with €500 bills and gold ingots.

The burly former bodyguard and fireman said the photos were fake, and suggested that Russia and his domestic political enemies could have staged them.