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Why Bulgaria’s government has survived months of anti-corruption protests

While the government waits for March elections, the protesters have no coherent electoral alternative — yet

Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

Since July, Bulgarians have been protesting government corruption almost daily. The latest such protest took place on Dec. 14, also marking the 31-year anniversary since the first major anti-communist protest in Bulgaria in 1989.

But the current cabinet — a coalition between Boyko Borisov’s pro-European Union, center-right party GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) and a group of far-right nationalist parties — has survived and will probably do so until the March elections. Why?

First, the government has been waiting for the protests to wane, knowing elections are scheduled for March 28, 2021. Second, polls predict parliament will continue to be split among several parties — with no clear alternative to the existing cabinet coalition. Public trust in political parties and parliament is low and protesters do not have a unified electoral strategy.

Who are the protesters?

The protests include many diverse groups, parties, and political movements: environment protection groups, parents of children with disabilities, the nationalist movement “Bulgaria United by a Single Aim” (BOEC), university students and the “Poisonous Trio.” That last is a group of three middle-aged men who aim to be provocative through targeted actions such as carrying coffins during protests, poking fun at the prime minister during political talk shows and organizing sit-ins on major traffic spots in Sofia. In November, police forces also organized protests in Sofia, demanding salary increases and better protection during the pandemic.

One of the most politically recognizable leaders of the protests is Hristo Ivanov, founder of the center-right party “Dеmocratic Bulgaria.” He was vice prime minister and minister of justice in Borisov’s 2014 government. He resigned in 2015 amid disagreements with Borisov over the need for judicial reform.

The protesters demand the resignations of Borisov, his government, and the country’s chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev. Other demands include reform of the judiciary, snap legislative elections, electronic voting, higher pay for medical staff and police, and improved health care and living conditions for children with special needs.

How did the protests start?

Public disenchantment with Borisov has been simmering for quite some time. For years, many Bulgarians have called for an end to the destruction of natural resources and public lands; that grew especially loud during the early months of 2020.

Then, on July 7, Hristo Ivanov and his companions filmed themselves trying to use a public beach, owned by the government and legally open to all. But security guards in National Protection Services uniforms — the Bulgarian equivalent of the U.S. Secret Service — attacked the group and kept them out. Ivanov’s film revealed the state had essentially reserved the beach for use only by Ahmed Dogan, an influential retired politician and businessman from the ethnic Turkish party.

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Where do other opposition figures stand?

Bulgaria has both a parliament and a directly elected president but the president’s powers are limited. President Rumen Radev of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the second strongest political party after Borisov’s GERB, supports the demonstrations and demanded the government’s resignation. After Radev’s statement in July, chief prosecutor raided the president’s offices. Open conflict between the prime minister and the president is unprecedented in Bulgarian politics. Protests intensified and BSP tried to lead the protests — but was pushed to the fringes.

Among those who hope to benefit if the government falls is the singer and former daily talk-show host Slavi Trifonov. He has been trying to enter the political arena for years and has used his popularity and media presence to boost his political ambitions and populist image with a hint of nationalism.

How has the government responded?

Above all else, the government’s goal has been to stay in power. On Aug. 14, Borisov proclaimed he would step down on one condition: If parliament would schedule elections for a constituent assembly that would revise the constitution. But protesters and opposition parties oppose the idea of reforming the constitution, so this was more a strategic move than a genuine concession. Indeed, on Nov. 25, GERB and its coalition partners’ proposal failed to win the required two-thirds parliamentary majority for such an assembly.

Throughout the fall, the prime minister avoided addressing the demonstrators directly and tried to shift public attention toward other issues, such as Northern Macedonia’s attempt to join the E.U. and the pandemic.

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Staying in power through ignoring protests

Incumbents do not have to repress or make concessions to stay in power. They can also negotiate, tolerate or ignore the demonstrations until public mobilization subsides.

Scholars disagree about how successful these tactics are. Political scientist Dina Bishara argues that “ignoring” protests could strengthen demonstrators’ resolve and prolong mobilization. Conversely, political scientists Samson Yuen and Edmund Cheng find governments can defeat protesters through toleration and attrition.

In recent research, one of us, Barzachka, looked at why officeholders ignore peaceful demonstrations by comparing five major protests in Bulgaria between 1990 and 2014. She found that the strategy of ignoring peaceful demonstrations tends to be adopted by stable political regimes when protesters and opposition parties are not electoral threats and cannot offer clear political alternatives to the incumbents. In these conditions, the government has incentives to stall and wait the protest out.

That’s the situation in Bulgaria today. Voters disapprove of Borisov’s cabinet but it’s unclear who would govern after snap elections. A November poll suggests there would be no clear winner if an election were held now: GERB would probably get 15.9 percent of the votes, the BSP 15 percent and Trifonov’s party roughly 6 percent. No other party is polling above 6 percent, although it is possible that up to seven parties would enter the new parliament, compared with the five in the current legislature. Moreover, most of those polled said they preferred to wait for the regularly scheduled March election.

Meanwhile, anti-government protests are likely to continue, despite exploding numbers of covid-19 infections and deaths, a severe health care and hospital crisis, record levels of air pollution, and a new pandemic lockdown. Protesters have less than four months to develop a coherent electoral strategy if they wish to offer voters a viable alternative to Borisov and his allies.

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Nina S. Barzachka teaches European politics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

Stefka P. Yordanova is a political scientist based in North Carolina.