Anti-establishment parties have surged while the leading right-wing coalition declined. The Turkish minority-backed party also garnered more than 10 percent of the vote.
Bulgaria has gone through several political stages in its complicated history from the pro-Soviet communist years to becoming a member of the European Union following the end of the Cold War.
Last weekend’s polls indicate that the country, which has a considerable Muslim population dominated by an ethnic Turkish minority, might enter a new era as voters have shifted to anti-establishment parties like the ‘There is Such a People’ party and Democratic Bulgaria.
Both parties are newcomers to Bulgarian politics.
The ‘There is Such a People’ party came second according to estimates and third in other predictions while Democratic Bulgaria garnered more than 10 percent of the vote, like the Turkish-origin-dominated party, Movement for Rights and Freedoms (HOH/DPS). Only 66 percent of the votes had been counted at the time of publishing.
“I do not think the government could be formed under these conditions,” says Fikri Gulistan, a 61-year old political analyst from Mestanli, a heavily Turkish-populated town in eastern Bulgaria. Gulistan, a dentist and a member of the Turkish minority is a well-known political figure.
Gulistan thinks early elections are inevitable within the current equation, which does not allow a governing coalition led by GERB to gather a majority.
Early poll results also show that the Socialists, the main opposition party, might lose its second place to the There is Such a People party, whose leader Slavi Trifonov, a popular singer and TV host, refused to be part of any coalition with both the right-wing GERB and the Socialists. Both parties are leading establishment parties.
Political analysts also see a slight chance of a coalition between the GERB, whose junior partner is a far-right party, and the Socialists. According to current results, six or seven parties could send representatives to the Bulgarian parliament.
“According to what they (political leaders) say, the government can not be formed. If there are early elections, Trifonov’s party will come first to my understanding. Because the party (There is Such a People) sensed its appeal in Bulgarian electorate and its chance to come first in next elections, it will not accept to enter a coalition with any,” Gulistan tells TRT World.
If a government is not formed, the Bulgarian president will appoint a caretaker government to lead the country until early elections.
Bulgaria experienced powerful protests for months prior to the elections, demanding change in the political structure, which protesters see as corrupt. The new parties' political success shows that the silent majority also backs the protest movement. According to Transparency International, Bulgaria is the most corrupt state in the EU.
“Support for new parties mostly originated in protest votes,” says Gulistan. He also adds that social media platforms like Facebook also made a big difference in diminishing establishment parties and bolstering new parties.
In late September, during a ferry trip from Turkey’s Gokceada island to the mainland Anatolia, a Bulgarian couple, Daniel Danaiov and Zornitsa Daskalova, expressed their displeasure with the current political system.
Both Danaiov, a 33-year-old manager in the trash cycling sector in Sofia, and Daskalova, a marketing-advertising specialist, felt that Bulgaria needs new parties to get rid of the old establishment party rule.
Behind the success of new parties, Gulistan also sees a popular phenomenon, the rise of showmen and actors, across Eastern Europe in countries like Ukraine and Bulgaria. “Trifonov has been a popular showman for decades like current Ukrainian President [Volodymyr Oleksandrovych] Zelensky, who was a comedian,” says Gulistan.
“People almost make fun of the old political system by electing people like Trifonov and Zelensky. Trifonov did not even conduct a real election campaign. Even he has no adequate knowledge concerning politics,” he says.
The post-election period will bring not only change but also political uncertainty, according to Emine Gulistan, a Sofia-based 35-year-old political analyst, who is also the daughter of Fikri Gulistan.
“The most surprising result was There is Such a People party,” she tells TRT World. “Trifonov’s party came first in ballot boxes outside Bulgaria,” she adds. Most political analysts had not predicted that Trifonov would do this well, according to Gulistan.
Due to political corruption and other economic problems, which have worsened under the deadly pandemic, many Bulgarians have migrated to other European countries like Britain, where a sizable population now lives. Nearly 2 million voted in recent elections while around 100,000-150,000 citizens voted outside of Bulgaria including in Turkey, where more than 350,000 Turkish-origin Bulgarian citizens live, according to different estimates.
In the 1980s, the former Bulgarian communist state had conducted a harsh assimilation policy against its large Muslim-Turkish minority, which once made up one-tenth of the total population. Due to the assimilation policy, hundreds of thousands of Turks in Bulgaria migrated to Turkey to protect their ethnic and religious identities.
In Turkey, nearly 35,000 Turks with Bulgarian citizenship voted in recent elections, according to Hasan Ozturk, a leading figure in Bulgaria’s Turkish diaspora in Turkey, who is also the president of Mestanli Region Culture and Solidarity Association.
According to Bulgarian election regularities, outside Bulgaria, only 35 ballot boxes could function in each country, which means no more than 35,000 people could vote in Turkey, Ozturk says. “Each ballot box could handle around 1,000 people. It’s an undemocratic practice, aiming to decrease Turkish voting,” Ozturk tells TRT World.
“Most votes appeared to go to the HOH,” he adds.
Turkish politics in Bulgaria
This time around, the Turkish-backed HOH party also apparently increased its share of Bulgarian votes, getting 10 to 11 percent, compared to last elections, when they received 8 percent of the vote.
Another Turkish-backed party, Dost, which did not enter the elections, declared support for Democratic Bulgaria, a liberal party, prior to the elections.
In the past, HOH, a left-leaning political party, was a part of governing coalitions, making itself a kingmaker in Bulgarian politics. But according to Emine Gulistan, the Sofia-based Turkish-origin political analyst, does not see much success for HOH in the last elections.
“If they [HOH] finish the election race as fourth after Democratic Bulgaria, that could have a damaging effect on the party, which usually represents the third biggest political bloc in the Bulgarian parliament,” Gulistan says.
She thinks that the HOH was not able to collect all of the Turkish votes, which are around 350,000, as it had happened in several past elections except the previous one, where the Dost party also made a strong finish. But the HOH received around 184,000, according to Gulistan.
Democratic Bulgaria seems to have garnered some Turkish votes by putting some Turkish-origin deputies in heavily Turkish-populated areas like Kircaali, she says. But they need to work so hard to win the hearts of the Turkish minority, which has gone through different phases of repression under different governments.
“The HOH needs to put its house in order. It needs to get rid of some old bad habits,” says Fikri Gulistan, referring to the party’s difficulties in attracting Turkish-origin voters of all stripes in Bulgaria.