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Established Parties Hijacking the Protest Vote: New Electoral Patterns in Bulgaria

The recent trend of widespread political distrust and low turnout in Bulgaria are, like in so many cases around Europe, in little favour for the traditional political parties. The old parties seem to have, however, found a way to circumvent the distrust and inconvenient frustration of voters while simultaneously maintaining their established positions in the Bulgarian political system: Running candidates rather strongly affiliated with the party but nominally independent has proved out to channel the frustration elsewhere, manifesting in protest movements as support to traditional parties.

The rise of new protest movements in Europe occasionally leads to establishment of novel parties, which often adopt innovative approaches. Formations like Five Star Movement in Italy or Podemos in Spain have earlier shaken the status quo not only because of their protest origin, but because they represent new organisational style—more direct communication with the citizens, informal gathering of supporters and most of all, sharp demarcation from the established elites.

The local elections held in Bulgaria in October and November could be ignored as one of the many local elections in Europe, had they not displayed a distinct and novel pattern of reaching voters. The voters in big cities and the capital Sofia displayed weak attachment to the mainstream parties and their candidates. Instead, the candidates represented as independent gained unexpected success. Such development portrayed a new pattern employed by old elite parties: participation in elections without the official label of the party. It is a particularly successful strategy where the discontent on the national policy is high, but the opposition parties are—for one reason or another—unacceptable. This is the case especially with the capital city of Bulgaria, Sofia, where party preferences have always been in favour of the right-hand-side of the political spectrum, defining itself as anticommunist, pro-European and pro-market.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991, the Bulgarian society was passionately divided in communists and anticommunists. The opposition to the regime was, on one hand, result of the close ties between Bulgarian Communist Party and Moscow and, on the other hand, the severe repression by the regime. Unlike in other Eastern European countries, the former Communist party (BSP-S&D) did not sharply demarcate itself from the past regime after the demise of Soviet Union. Such refusal prevented a clear development of the party towards a more social democratic ideology. As a result, supporters of the party have been located mainly outside of the capital and the big cities, in rural Bulgaria.

In contrast, the democratic opposition to the soviet-minded regime, SDS (EPP), labeled itself as politically right, passionately condemned the fallen regime and advocated for affiliating Bulgaria with EU and NATO. The party attracted voters mainly in the big cities of the country and particularly in capital Sofia, where its candidates easily won the mayoral position. As a result, Sofia has been labeled as an anticommunist stronghold and has never had a mayor from the left. Steadily, the traditional rightist party SDS split and its position has been occupied by GERB (EPP)—the incumbent ruling party in Bulgaria.

Polling average of Bulgaria

The trend summarised above was about to change in the local elections of 2019. For the first time since 2005 there was a run-off in Sofia mayoral election, between GERB-EPP candidate Yordanka Fandakova and Maya Manolova. Manolova had been a member of BSP-S&D until 2015 and a national ombudsman since then. Although Manolova lost, reaching the run-off would have been unthinkable was she an official candidate of BSP. Instead of presenting herself as a BSP candidate, Manolova had participated in the election as an independent candidate, which is practically a new strategy adopted by the party.

The rising dissatisfaction with the Bulgarian national politics and the unsuccessful renovation projects in Sofia provided a fruitful ground for the opposition candidates to challenge the city’s incumbent mayor, Fandakova (GERB-EPP). Knowing that the candidate from political left would not be successful in Sofia, BSP-S&D left Manolova to be presented as an independent “civil candidate”, nominated by an initiative committee instead of the party. This strategic move proved out to be a successful initiative, since the candidate proceeded to gain a record result for BSP in Sofia. Besides Sofia, a similar pattern was put in use in another important city, the southwestern Blagoevgrad. As in Sofia, the candidate of the left was formally independent but backed up by BSP. In Blagoevgrad the tactic was even more successful, as the candidate won the mayoral position replacing the incumbent mayor, member of GERB.

The local elections set up a new electoral pattern in national politics of Bulgaria: participating as an independent candidate to avoid the discontent of the political establishment. It is a “two birds in one stone” approach, attracting voters as an outsider of the mainstream politics but at the same time relying on the organised party support of mobilised loyal supporters. For now, the strategy has proved successful as long as there are no new and powerful protest movements in Bulgaria.

Learning from the experience of countries where the new movements gained leading positions, parties in Bulgaria chose to adapt to the citizens’ demands for novelty while at the same time preserving their positions as dominant actors in the political process. Remains to be seen whether the pattern continues in the Bulgarian 2021 parliamentary elections.