Six things you need to know about the EU elections in Bulgaria

Six things you need to know about the EU elections in Bulgaria

Petar Valkov April 2019

On 26 May Bulgaria will vote to elect 17 MEPs. Currently the conservative GERB Party holds 6 seats that vote with the EPP; the Socialist party holds 4 (S&D); the liberal MRF (Movement for Rights and Freedoms) also holds 4, and are members of ALDE; another liberal faction Bulgaria Without Censorship has 2 seats in the ECR; and the small Reformist Block coalition holds just 1 seat and is also an EPP member. The last 2 factions however have since dissolved.

Low turnout may deprive small factions of seats in the EP

The EP elections are not very popular with the general public. Back in 2014 turnout was only 35.8%. This year opinion polls show that 35% of citizens are willing to vote, but the real turnout is expected to be much lower. Election day, 26 May, coincides with the end of a bank holiday, and the majority of people will be travelling, stuck in traffic, or at a border checkpoint, and many will not be able to vote, even if they plan to. To make matters worse, the opposition launched a negative campaign, and negative campaign messaging usually results in a reduced turnout, which favours the incumbents. Well-established parties such as GERB, the Socialist Party, and the MRF are expected to receive the lion`s share of the seats, and maybe even all of them, depending on the particular distribution of votes. However, there are a few more contenders that may win 1 or 2 seats in a favourable distribution scenario and depending on the turnout. The first of these  is a small liberal faction called Union Democratic Bulgaria, and the second is the Volya Party, a populist entity funded by a major pharma investor. The third is a candidate from a nationalistic factions known as the United Patriots.

Big stakes for the ruling party

The cabinet is backed by the GERB party and the United Patriots caucus. The GERB Party is far from being in top shape, due to recent corruption scandals. The United Patriots consists of three small nationalistic parties that registered separately for the EP elections. Unless they make a last minute deal for a joint list, they may fail to elect a single MEP. In this situation, it is possible that the political opposition will end up winning more MEP seats than the ruling coalition. This would pose serious questions about the legitimacy of the cabinet.

In the past, and in similar circumstances, the leader of the GERB party opted for early elections. What’s more, a poor result will affect them at the upcoming municipal elections in October. The only good news for the ruling party is that the opposition has its own issues to cope with and is neither united, nor determined to win at any cost, nor willing to call early elections at any cost.

Attacks on the legitimacy of the elections

Parties in opposition try not to lose face in case they receive poor results and always spread rumours about election fraud in advance. Foreign powers also intervene in local elections, spread rumours, raise sensitive issues, and try to hack the election infrastructure and influence the local media. This year authorities are raising concerns that such attacks could happen again. All this affects the legitimacy of the election results, to some extent. However, we don’t anticipate that such an intervention could effectively manipulate the vote. The Bulgarian election procedure is notoriously old-fashioned, and this makes the vote resilient to fraud, although no doubt attempts will be made.

Latest opinion polls

The latest opinion polls say that 26% of respondents are prepared to vote for the Socialist Party. This is just a marginal advantage vs the ruling GERB Party, who have polled at 25%. These two parties are likely to elect around 6 MEPs each. Such a small margin is not conclusive at this stage. The third sure winner is the MRF party with about 9.5%. Their result will grow if the turnout shrinks further, so they can be assured of 4 seats.

This leaves 1 or 2 seats to be distributed between the Union Democratic Bulgaria, the Volya Party, or some of the patriotic factions, depending on the outcome of the last minute negotiations.

What this means for the EP structure

The EPP group will have around 6 MEPs from Bulgaria. The Socialist group will get about 6 new members, whilst the Liberals will have 4 secure seats (and possibly 5, depending on the results of the small factions). The ECR is likely to get between 0 and 2 MEPs, again depending on the final distribution.

What you need to know about Bulgarian MEPs

Bulgarian MEPs are well organized and disciplined. Despite their personal political preferences and different backgrounds, they act united on key proposals to maximize the positive effect for the Bulgarian government, the national economy, and the Bulgarian state. They are likely to continue to support the German and French proposals in the next EP, since these countries partner well with the Bulgarian government and hold the keys to three key objectives for Bulgaria – large amounts of EU funding for Bulgaria, plus Schengen and Eurozone accession. Dialogue with the Netherlands is stalling, so the attitude towards their proposals may vary in parallel to the developments around the Schengen accession negotiations.