Political scientist Mihail Mishev joins Cross-Border Talks to discuss recent local elections in Bulgaria, marked by a couple of unexpected outcomes. Among others, a representative of liberal and pro-European We Continue The Change-Democratic Bulgaria will be ruling Sofia after more than a decade of GERB domination, and after a tough race against left-wing candidate Vanya Grigorova. Mikhail Mishev explains why GERB, a corrupt party against which Bulgarians protested massively in 2020, is still one of the strongest forces in the regional landscape. He also comments on the low turnout and argues that even if Bulgarian parties often look like business lobbies, there are people and forces who genuinely act for a much needed change in the country.
On 29 October and 5 November 2023 local elections took place in Bulgaria. Each of the main political parties has something to declare as a success. GERB, a member party of the European People’s Party, which is part of the government (despite being patronage-driven and corrupt) won elections in 11 cities, including Plovdiv, Burgas, Veliko Tarnovo, Pleven, Gabrovo and Vratsa. Although it lost Sofia and several other cities, its local influence remains strong. This local influence is one of the reasons for its durability in Bulgarian politics. The “Change Continues-Democratic Bulgaria” alliance – the other party in government, won in Sofia, Varna, Blagoevgrad and Pazardzhik. The anti-corruption party is expanding its influence in Bulgarian politics. On the other hand, however, the performance can be considered modest in the context of the great ambitions of the younger, more technocratic Bulgarian elites behind this trend.
The Bulgarian Socialist Party won elections in Ruse, Shumen and Montana. The BSP will also have some influence in municipal councils in various localities. Thus, the party shows that it still has influence in Bulgarian politics, even if mostly people from older generations vote for it.
The Movement for Rights and Freedoms won the mayoral seat in Kardzhali, but has a significant participation in the municipal councils of other municipalities with a more significant presence of Bulgarian Turks. The Green Party won the mayoral seat in Kyustendil, while in Vidin, Dobrich and Yambol representatives of smaller local political groups or independents became mayors.
All observers note the extremely low turnout in the second round – under 40%. With such a low voter turnout, it is difficult to talk about someone’s actual popularity or victory.
Another trend is that municipal councils are now made up of several different parties, which are often not even represented at national level, but only at local level. This might be a good thing, as there will be no hegemonic forces in a given municipality, and municipal councilors will have to develop negotiation and dialogue skills. However, the division of local vote might also mean that corporate interests will be able to buy influence more easily among smaller parties.
Full transcription of the recording is available below the video.
Hello everybody. This is Crossborder Talks, a podcast devoted to social issues and international relations in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and beyond. My name is Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat, joining you from Katowice, Poland. We are going to discuss the regional elections in Bulgaria together with Mihail Mishev, a political scientist from Bulgaria. Hello, Mihail.
It is the second time, actually, that Cross-border Talks is reporting on elections in Bulgaria this year. We we published a report on what happened around and after the parliamentary elections this spring. When coming to Bulgaria to report on them, I heard that the regional elections would be perhaps even more important, because they would tell us more in terms of how influential different political camps were, and was a real political change happening in Bulgaria after years of rule of GERB and Boyko Borisov. We would like to analyze these issues during our talk.
But first, a bit of a provocative question. Vladimir Mitev, co-founder of Crossborder Talks and who unfortunately cannot be today with us, told me that in Bulgaria, if you did not own a business and if you did not have a direct economic interest to vote in the elections, there is no party to represent you and there was little point in voting at all. Mihail, do you agree with this?
No. I think it’s just too simple to explain the whole dynamics of politics in Bulgaria in this way. Of course, there are some parties that have their circles of businesses in some of the bigger towns. But in general, especially for the young generation, the bigger incentive to go out and vote are the democratic values that they believe in. The urge to change something. So I wouldn’t simplify it that much. You want to have social issues solved in local elections.
So, if you want a change in Bulgaria, who could you vote for? How important is the camp of change right now? What did this regional election tell us about this camp of change?
Change depends how you see it. It occurred in some of the biggest towns. For example, in Sofia, after 17 years of GERB ruling, a change happened. The new mayor of Sofia is supported by We Continue the Change, Democratic Bulgaria and Save Sofia. A new mayor was elected in Blagoevrad – from We Continue to Change and Democratic Bulgaria – as well as in Varna. These are some of the biggest cities that have seen a change when it comes to rulers.
However, in the large picture not much changed. GERB has actually retained most of the regional centers, so I wouldn’t argue that a big change happened. However, there are some things that you can see developing. For example, in Sofia. I would love to talk about Sofia…
OK, so let’s talk about Sofia, especially that this election was perhaps the most widely commented, not only because of who is the winner of the election, but also because of his opponent, Vania Grigorova. She positioned herself as the voice of those who were not heard so far, the voice of the workers, the oppressed, the poor. What can you tell us about this candidate and about the fight around the Sofia mayor post?
The two different campaigns were very interesting, very different from the last elections, I would argue. What made the difference for me personally is Vanya Grigorova. She was a leftist, more focused on social issues. She was very specific on the things that she wants to change, and she had some arguments about how she would solve the problems if she is elected. Vasil Terziev, who became mayor, was lacking these specific arguments about how he and his team would solve the problems they would face. They were more focused just on meeting people, presenting the candidate.
Anton Hakimyan was the candidate for GERB. He was known to most people because he had been a host on one of the biggest TVs in Bulgaria. Terziev, however, was not that well-known to the general public. We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria had to present him. They did a quite long, 3-4 months long campaign just meeting with people. On the contrary, Anton Hakimyan was presented as a candidate at the last moment. I’m not sure that it was a decision taken by the local organizations of Gerb. I have my doubts there.
However, Vania Grigorieva is better known especially for the left people in Sofia. She is a public figure. She’s been a public figure since the last five years, when she was a candidate also for the European Parliament. She’s quite a well-known person. She is an economic analyst. Grigorova had more concrete solutions with steps to follow while the others were speaking in general terms.
Now the question is, if Terziev comes to power in Sofia, will there be a change on the ground? Anybody who has visited Sofia has seen how much is to be done in terms of infrastructure renovation or in terms of living conditions in the capital. Do you hope that something will be done here?
Infrastructure is very important. This was the main focus of Save Sofia, for example. Democratic Bulgaria is also heavily focused on infrastructure. However, what I think people of Sofia need, especially now, is not that much infrastructure, but solving social issues.
For example, let’s take the minimum wage. It is really hard to live in big cities. In Sofia, you need to work at least two jobs or pay 42 to 50% of your paycheck for rent. These are more urgent issues. That’s why I think Grigorova’s campaign was better accepted in poorer regions in Sofia for example than the campaign of Terziev.
The mayor is the main figure, but the local parliaments are the entities that operate and rule the cities. We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria doesn’t have a majority. They need 7 to 8 votes more, and the local dynamics are way more different than the national. For example, if now at the moment We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria are partnering with GERB on national level, it may not happen on local level. Other possibilities are present there.
What I think is needed most at the moment is a strong local initiative that will run behind the newly elected mayor and local parliament, in order to force them to focus more on social issues. Because that is what the people were saying, not only through voting for Vanya as a leftist, but also voting for the future. Terziev, too, was perceived as a new actor that can manage Sofia.
However, I think that Terziev is not really prepared for the burden that is coming with this position. His partners from Save Sofia have more experience. Moreover, he is not focused on social issues at all. He focuses only on infrastructure. Infrastructure is important, but more urgent problems are present for the general public. If you see who wins in which part of Sofia, you will see the disparity between the poor and the rich neighborhood, for example. So different problems are present for the different communities. However, most people living in Sofia, I believe, face more social problems than just the infrastructure.
If we look at other cities, do you also see other candidates that represent willingness to do social change? Or was Vanya Grigorova a kind of singular phenomenon?
There are a couple of them. For example, in Blagoevgrad. I followed the campaign closely here. The candidate who won the local elections is a lawyer. He was supported by We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria. He won the elections with a margin of 600 votes, an extremely close call. His program was very focused on social issues.
Different parties have different candidates with very distinct approaches. GERB had more, how to say, in-line arguments and programs among the different candidates. For the candidates from We Continue to Change there was more freedom to choose their priorities. This made a big difference in Sliven, for example, where the current mayor or won the elections, it will be his third term. There were some ambiguities surrounding his way of ruling. Let’s say, however, a huge change was seen. He is from GERB, but he is also an economist. People assumed that he would focus on just the businesses and the infrastructure. He focused on local issues as well. And that won him the elections. So on a local level, there are candidates who are well prepared to face the social issues, especially in Burgas, I would argue. But time will show what they actually can do.
How do you explain the durability of GERB popularity in at least some of the regions of the country? After all, social problems that you mentioned are also the negative heritage of the party’s rule on a national level.
There are two aspects regarding the question. Yes, indeed, GERB was ruling for quite long time and for good or bad, most results show its influence. I would argue that people see the problems with GERB’s ruling. However, there are huge disinformation campaigns and there is straightforward lying in social media, for example. People in general, especially the older generations, often see themselves as left-wingers they could vote for more social programs. They’re not scared. However, many of them usually have some doubts regarding the Bulgarian Socialist Party because of its heritage of the communist regime back in the days. If you vote for what they are, you vote, I would argue, for a pro-Kremlin tendency. In addition, the socialist party makes very strong right-wing campaigns. I don’t see anything really left about them – that’s why a lot of leftist people or centrists voted for We Continue the Change rather than for the Bulgarian Socialist Party.
I need to ask about the turnout, which was not impressive: less than 50% again. The question is: why people are not voting?
All parties, during the years, contributed to alienating the people from the voting process, from decision- making process on local level. Making politics sound dirty, scary, something behind closed doors. This was, in my opinion, the main reason why people are not interested in voting. They cannot see any point of going out and voting. They don’t see themselves represented and their problems acknowledged by the candidates, especially in smaller towns.
However, with the protests in 2020-2021, we can see some hope after We Continue the Change came out as a party. A lot more people, especially young people, got politically involved with We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria. These parties have an advantage, I would say, compared to the other parties of engaging young people. The Bulgarian Socialist Party is having hard times to engage young people. That is a problem that they will face and they are facing now. If you follow the parliamentary elections, their support throughout the different elections was becoming lower for GERB too. They managed to remain the main actors on national level, also on local level. However, the support that they are getting is getting weaker. The connections that they were using to support and elect their local candidates are weakening. There were some splits: for example in Sliven, some of the GERB team splitted from their party and stood in favor of the current president.
GERB is losing voting power. However, it is still the biggest party in Bulgaria. That is also worth mentioning because their support was steady throughout the years. They are the only party that has been present in Bulgarian parliament of all terms. However, on a local level we can see that some of their strongholds were attacked by We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria. Therefore, there is a change. It depends how different parties can see the needs of the young people. If they cannot act fast enough, they will lose support quite fast.