Two Harvard graduates break the country's year-long electoral deadlock, but they have a long list of issues to solve.

Following a dispute at a polling station during Bulgaria’s November elections, a woman in the capital of Sofia ate a voting receipt while escaping from the police. Considering Bulgaria’s stormy political year, this incident was merely a drop in the bucket. After 282 days of anti-government protests, the country had three parliamentary polls, one presidential election and its runoff within a year. Paradoxically, every election save for the presidential vote had a different winner. 

After the runoff, which was conducted on November 21st, the incumbent President Rumen Radev consolidated his win. Meanwhile, new political figures emerged from the Parliamentary elections. The newly founded anti-corruption party We Continue the Change (PP) won more than a quarter of the votes. The party was created by two Harvard-educated personalities: former caretaker Economic Minister Kiril Petkov and Finance Minister Asen Vasilev. What’s more, the duration of this process was less than two months. Even so, We Continue the Change managed to establish sufficient credence to become the number one party in the country. 

On the night of their win, Petkov announced that he is open to dialogue with other parties, apart from the former ruling party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and the Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF). 

During an interview for TRT World’s “Across the Balkans,” Philip Gounev, Bulgaria’s former Deputy Interior Minister and an expert on anti-corruption and Public Administration, said that their success was not the result of a mere two months. They’d been in the spotlight since their appointments as Interim ministers in May. Gounev said that “for many years, Bulgaria has been waiting for a charismatic person to lead.” Similarly, what kept GERB’s leader Boyko Borisov in charge for many years is precisely that charisma. Nevertheless, it gradually dwindled. There was a need for a new person to assume the position. Now, the Harvard Boys are here.  

Led by two Harvard graduates, the newly founded anti-corruption party won Bulgaria's parliamentary election in mid November.
Led by two Harvard graduates, the newly founded anti-corruption party won Bulgaria's parliamentary election in mid November. (AP)

Why so many elections?

Since April, Bulgaria has been ruled by a caretaker government because none of the previous elections produced a solid ruling coalition. In short, the Bulgarian parliament has 240 seats. Thus, to secure a majority and form a government, at least 121 seats are necessary. In past elections, the first three parties were given a chance to form a government, but none was successful. In July, GERB was overthrown by There are Such People (ITN), a party founded by Bulgaria’s notorious showman and singer Slavi Trifonov. However, history repeated itself. 

Neither GERB nor the ITN had enough votes to form a government on their own. Then, disagreements deepened between the parties, quashing the possibility of forming a ruling coalition. 

In a nutshell, the November snap elections produced similar voting patterns, but the leading parties were different from the previous election. GERB held second place with 22.74 percent. After a drastic loss of support in July, MRF then improved to take third place with 13 percent. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) dropped to fourth with 10,3 percent. Meanwhile, the ITN, which won the previous snap elections, dropped from 24.1 percent to only 9 percent, losing almost one-third of its voters in the process. Similarly, Democratic Bulgaria has lost half of its previous tallies and won barely 6 percent of the votes. Oddly enough, despite their protest against Bulgaria’s Covid-19 safety measures and vaccination campaign, the far-right Revival won enough votes to enter the parliament. 

Task number one

During the political circus, the Covid-19 crisis deepened. Bulgaria is the EU’s least vaccinated country and faces a large Covid-19 crisis. Ruzha Smilova, program director at the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, says: “Each day Bulgaria loses the equivalent of one plane crash (of people due to Covid-19). It is horrendous.” As of now, Bulgaria has the highest death ratio per population in the world. 

Subsequently, the situation was a major factor in Bulgaria’s low voter turnout – only 40,23 percent. Even mobile election teams, who visited quarantined homes, did not improve the numbers. 

Gounev said that national restrictions encouraged vaccination. However, there is “total mistrust in the government,” which is characteristic for all Eastern Europe. He further expressed his doubts that we’d see a reversal of this trend, even though it has happened in some Western European countries.  

In the Presidential runoff on Sunday, 1.5 million people voted for Radev, supported by the BSP, the PP, and the ITN. In contrast, his opponent, Anastas Gerdzhikov, supported by the GERB-SDS alliance, took only 730k votes. In total, 6.2 million Bulgarians are registered voters. Therefore, merely 34.84 percent participated in the election. 

Petkov and Vasilev supported the incumbent president during his campaign. After winning the runoff, they congratulated Radev and expressed their will to work with him and continue the change together. 

Nevertheless, the Harvard boys have a long list of issues to solve. Bulgaria has one of the highest corruption rates amongst the EU, a sub-par healthcare system, and the EU’s lowest vaccination rate. To make things worse, due to the political turmoil, politicians have avoided taking strong stances on Covid-19. This has paved the way for conspiracy theories and misinformation to emerge. As a result, communication between people and the government has become strained. 

Even a few years will not be enough to solve all of these problems. However, as a Bulgarian proverb says, “dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” Hopefully, the Harvard Boys will be the beginning of that persistence. 

Source: TRT World