Bulgarians went to the polls three times in 2021 and the summary of the results goes something like this:
6-7 parties in each parliament
4 brand new parties (ITN, IBNI, We Continue the Change, Revival)
3 different election winners (GERB, ITN, We Continue the Change)
2 failed attempts at cabinet formation (GERB-Mitov, ITN-Nikolov)
1 giant stalemate
Why is Bulgarian politics so hopelessly deadlocked and why did two parliaments fail to put forth a cabinet? Why did Bulgarians vote for a different winner every time and why did they support four different new parties in barely a year? While there are complex causes for this outcome, a recent article that Nikolay Marinov and I published in Perspectives on Politics draws attention to a less discussed, but we believe, important driver, namely the spread of conspiracy narratives throughout the party system. Parliament is deadlocked because the status quo parties have done an expert job in obfuscating the real conspiracy that structures Bulgarian politics today, namely state capture and endemic corruption. The opposition parties all use conspiratorial language, but mistrust each other due to fears that some might be cooperating with the state captors behind the scenes. The state captors’ strategy of presenting themselves as Europe (and the West)’s partners, while they govern with and support nationalists who trade in anti-Western conspiratorial narratives also splits the opposition. A sizable portion of the Bulgarian electorate keeps looking for the “real” opposition, whom to entrust with the task of dismantling the status quo.
The July election winners, Trifonov’s ITN, attracted voters with strong anti-GERB rhetoric, mixed in with Trifonov’s patriotic credentials that appealed to the nationalists and vaccine-hesitant positions, which appealed to the “everything-is-a-conspiracy” crowd. When it came to forming a government, however, Trifonov refused to enter coalition talks with the other opposition parties. His first PM-designate pick was a politician from the early 2000s with serious corruption skeletons in his closet and roots in the very party that spawned Borissov. His second pick was a political unknown with a grotesquely inflated, otherwise very thin CV. Trifonov’s fiasco cut his electoral support down in November to barely a third of what it had been in July, with some of the disappointed thinking he is simply unfit for politics and others suspecting that his ITN may not be “real” opposition after all, but a ploy of the mafia state to replace Borissov with another public face.
The latest winners, We Continue the Change, earned their first place because their leaders, Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, are perceived as genuine political outsiders. They were appointed as technocrats due to their strong CVs—they have 4 Harvard degrees between the two of them, as well as experience in multinational companies and ambitious start-ups. But their political rise over the summer mainly stems from the perception that they used their key posts—Minister of the Economy and Minister of Finance—to start exposing the real conspiracy. Their bold step of streaming cabinet coalition negotiations live over social media has already shaken things up. The previously obstructionist ITN switched to a more collaborative tone and their most natural ally, Democratic Bulgaria, has been constructive. Their final potential coalition partner, BSP is pushing hard for concessions and, as a status quo party, is the biggest risk to any potential reformist government. It is too soon to talk about Bulgaria taking a new reformist path, but at least the prospects of exiting the giant stalemate have improved.