No clear path forward for Bulgaria after election split

The discovery of hundreds of thousands of illegal ballots has left Sunday's already divisive electoral results even more uncertain – and likely compounded Bulgaria's ongoing problems.

Valentina Petrova/AP
Protesters claim the current parliamentary elections are not legitimate during a protest in Sofia, Bulgaria, Sunday night. No party won a majority to form a government, fueling fears of more political and economic instability in the country.

The discovery of hundreds of thousands of illegal ballot papers has thrown an already complex Bulgarian election into turmoil. The situation was already messy enough - with a governing party that resigned in February during street protests topping a highly-divided field.

But with mounting suspicions of fraud, hopes that the election might end a period of political chaos are distrust are fading.

Protesters gathered in central Sofia last night after a report that a police raid had turned up 350,000 unregistered ballot papers in a factory in western Bulgaria. The company involved, contracted to print the ballot papers, has denied wrongdoing, but allegations are already flying about its owner’s political links to GERB, the rightist party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who resigned in February.

The GERB-led government and opposition both accused the other of vote-rigging. The scandal threatens to taint what was already a controversial and hotly-contested vote.

According to preliminary reports of Bulgaria's Central Electoral Commission (CEC) based on 96 percent of the processed tally, it seems likely that the next parliament will consist of four largely mutually antipathetic parties: GERB with 30.7 percent of the popular vote; the former communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) with 27 percent; the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), largely supported by Bulgaria’s Muslim minority with 10.6 percent; and the ultranationalist Ataka (Attack) with 7.4 percent.

The lack of a clear winning party or bloc means another election might prove necessary, perhaps in the fall.

“It’s an extremely difficult situation,” says Daniel Smilov, at the Centre for Liberal Strategies, a Sofia think-tank. “We can’t exclude another election soon.”

A hung parliament?

Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union, and public discontent about rising energy bills, poverty, corruption and government heavy-handedness has been growing.

Mr. Borisov’s government has lost popularity due to austerity measures taken after Bulgaria’s previously booming economy was hit hard by the eurozone crisis. It has also come under criticism for policy U-turns and, more recently, a wiretapping scandal that has implicated one of Borisov’s closest aides, former Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov.

But the BSP is still regarded with great suspicion by many Bulgarians, due to its communist past. Despite widespread distaste with the political elite, no new force emerged from the vote, in contrast with previous Bulgarian elections.

Forming a coalition might be impossible. As winner, GERB gets the first chance to form a government. One possibility is a partnership between GERB and Ataka, which current arithmetic suggests would have a majority of one. But bringing Ataka into government would mar Bulgaria's already poor international reputation.

Regardless, given the wide differences among the elected parties – and their past performance – it is unclear if they are able to address Bulgaria’s pressing problems, from economic stagnation to massive disillusionment with the political system.

“It’s a very complicated outcome,” says Dimitar Bechev, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations office in Sofia. “There was record wastage of votes – 24 percent of people voted for parties that didn't make it past 4 percent," the threshold needed for a party to sit in parliament, he says.

"The hung parliament means long weeks of haggling over coalition, which may mean lots of problems regarding policy making.”

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