Intense political polarisation and protests took place in Bulgaria in 2013. In February of that year, the ruling party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), was forced to resign and new national elections were organised. This allowed a coalition of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) to form a government.
And yet a second wave of political protests started and continued during the summer and into early autumn. The prime minister, Plamen Oresharski (an independent member endorsed by the BSP), was unable to quell unrest so former prime minister and the current leader of the BSP, Sergei Stanishev, stepped in with the promise that the future of the cabinet and the future of the National Parliament would depend on the people’s will as expressed in the results of the European Parliament elections.
He pledged that if the ruling coalition parties receive fewer votes than opposition parties, the government would step aside and hold new elections later in the year. Suddenly, these European Parliamentary elections have been transformed into a national referendum on the government.
As a result the campaign has become a purely national campaign addressing specific national issues. And from being considered as “second-order” elections, the EU elections now have very high political stakes. This is not the first time this has happened. In 2009, the EU elections took place one month before regular national elections, so the campaign became a forerunner of the national election campaign, with the result taken as indicative of the national elections to follow.
In 2014 the fate of the government and the survival of the assembly are dependent on this week’s European Parliament election result, which has raised the stakes and focused the campaign on national issues.
Big hitters and outside chances
To understand the way this election is going to work in Bulgaria it is helpful to group participating parties in two main groups: parties members of an EP party group and parties without such an affiliation.
We could label them as “mainstream parties” and “outsiders”, respectively. To the first group belong the governing parties, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which is a member of the Party of European Socialists (PES) and the Movement For Rights and Freedoms (DPS) which is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).
The main opposition party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP) and Reformist Bloc, an alliance of a number of minority right-wing and centrist parties (RB) that currently hold no seats in the Bulgarian parliament has some MEPs aligned to EPP.
The outsiders are political parties at the margin of party space which, apart from the populist party Bulgaria Without Censorship (BBC), do not stand much of a chance of securing a seat.
What the polls are saying
So far the opinion polls have been fairly stable: it looks as if the elections will be dominated by insiders: the BSP, GERB, DPS, RB and – recently indentified as a growing force – BBC. For the first time, nationalist parties are likely to be left without representation at Brussels.
This is largely due to the fact that a variety of populist parties are vying for the nationalist vote. So, National Union Attack (ATAKA) which won two seats in 2009, may receive an insufficient number of votes to send an MEP to Brussels.
The real surprise of these elections is the manner in which Euroscepticism is manifesting itself in the form of both “hard” and “soft” Euroscepticism. It’s important to note that this is political territory that was previously occupied by the marginal players. But no longer. Now a variety of mainstream actors, including some influential figures within the BSP, are expressing doubts and criticisms of the EU.
This is new. Only two or three years ago, Bulgaria was seen as one of the most enthusiastic members of the EU – and one of the reasons that nationalist parties such as Ataka could attract votes. But as the mainstream has developed its own softer version of Euroscepticism they have dragged support from the fringe, mainstreaming the issue and hence mainstreaming a section of the Eurosceptic vote in this election.