Much like the constant state of Israeli politics in recent years, Bulgarians voted on October 2nd for the fourth time in less than two years. The snap election, triggered by the summer dissolvement of the parliamentary government, is a display of the new status quo that has become the instability of Bulgarian democracy. It also demonstrates how the growing anti-democratic movements gaining steam around the world can themselves benefit by trying to replicate the Bulgarian situation.
Many of the reformist protest parties have come and gone in quick fashion through these snap elections. They win one election and then shrink into oblivion during the next. Beyond the few traditional parties, including multi-time prime minister Boyko Borisov’s Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, most political parties swiftly come and go. Their short-lived success results in an inability to form cohesive governing coalitions, resulting in a government that stays in a constant state of instability. It also fosters a population and voting base that is plagued with unrest and anger, which can be used as a weapon by far-right populists who aim to prey on the anger of everyday Bulgarians.
This situation can be traced back to the winner of that October 2 election: Borisov and his Citizens party. Borisov has served three previous terms as Prime Minster of Bulgaria. Each ended with his resignation over protests in response to low living standards and corruption within the Borisov government. Yet, he returned right back to office through snap elections, rendering any opposition useless to break his hold on power. Before the series of government dissolvements from protest parties, the Borisov period was heralded by international allies as stable.
While his biased allies might describe his governance as a sign of stability, others might describe it as a corrupt authoritarian state. Authoritarian regimes are often over-praised for the appearance of stability, but the threats to core tenets of democracy, combined with the risk of greater instability are often ignored. In Borisov and Bulgaria’s case, we have both. His regime degraded democratic rights, and a period of increased instability followed. Borisov has been accused of a multitude of classic authoritarian tactics – media suppression, buying votes, and intimidating political opposition. Borisov was also detained by EU officials earlier this year concerning corruption allegations, giving further credence to the angst of the public that can be utilized by the far-right in Bulgaria. Those violations led to a culmination of protests and the current series of snap elections.
While instability has become the new reality in Bulgaria, the more pressing issue that is plaguing their democracy is the rise of far-right anti-democratic parties. Vazrazhdane, the pro-Kremlin far-right party, became the fourth largest party in parliament on October 2nd. Borisov has historically relied on the right to help govern, but many worry that Varazhdane is too extreme to partner with.
In the past, we’ve seen numerous examples of anti-democratic movements taking advantage of political and institutional instability to further their agendas. In Bolivia, for example, during the wake of an Evo Morales election win that became questioned by the international community, far-right actors chased Morales out of the country. The then Second Vice President of the Senate, Jeanine Áñez, declared herself president of Bolivia, citing the line of succession. Here at home, supporters of former President Donald Trump used false claims of voter fraud and election manipulation to attempt to overthrow the certification process of now President Joe Biden’s win.
We have also seen an electoral rise of the far-right across the world. In the last month in Europe alone, Italy elected a fascist prime minister and Sweden’s elections saw the far-right place in first. In the next month, we might see multiple anti-democratic candidates win statewide executive positions in states across the United States. Ultranationalists and extreme far-right candidates are using multiple crises to their advantage. Refugee crises, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and worsening conditions due to decades of austerity, all lend a hand to the electoral arguments of the far-right.
The worry in Bulgaria is whether their already fragile system succumbs to ultranationalism and fascism in much the same way countries like Italy have. We know that once conspiracy theorists and those who seek to degrade systems to their benefit get power, they rarely allow themselves to lose it. They will do whatever it takes to stay in power, using many of the same tactics Borisov himself used in the past.
The question remains: Will Borisov utilize the far-right again to create a coalition capable of sustainable governance, or will he fail, allowing for another snap election, giving the far-right a greater chance to capitalize on the instability? His partnership and governing helped the country reach this moment in time. Will he continue to worsen the situation or will he move the country back to the appearance of stability? Only time will tell.