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Third time’s the charm? Bulgaria’s parliamentary elections and the rule of law

Bulgarians will head to the polls on 14 November 2021 to elect a new parliament for the third time this year, following elections in April and July that failed to result in a stable government. This time, they will also elect their next president, as the five-year term of incumbent President Rumen Radev has come to an end. DRI’s Jakub Jaraczewski sat down with Bilyana Gyaurova-Wegertseder, Director of the Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives, to discuss the elections and the country’s rule of law problems. 

The rule of law is a major issue in Bulgaria and has been high on the political agenda since 1989 as well as a contentious item in the Bulgarian integration process into the European Union. What are the biggest rule of law issues in the country right now? 

The rule of law issues in Bulgaria are multi-faceted. The autonomy of prosecutors and the activities of the controversial Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev remain one of the most pressing concerns. Corruption continues to be a major problem for Bulgaria, with the line between politics and business blurred and accusations of graft frequently levied against public officials. A lack of independence and impartiality of the judiciary has also been plaguing Bulgaria for decades. Apart from this, Bulgarian courts are lagging behind on efficiency, particularly regarding the use of digital tools in courts. 

Currently, the country is being run by a non-partisan caretaker government that has openly acknowledged many of Bulgaria’s long-standing rule of law issues and vowed to resolve them. However, that government has also faced major new rule of law hurdles, in particular concerning its former economy minister Kiril Petkov, who was appointed by President Radev despite Petkov holding dual citizenship, which is forbidden by the Bulgarian Constitution. The Constitutional Court found in October that Petkov’s appointment violated the Constitution, prompting calls for President Radev to step down. He has not done so and is standing for re-election this Sunday. 

Are these rule of law issues coming up in the political campaign? 

The political party GERB, which was in power from 2009 until earlier this year, is now in the opposition to the caretaker government and they are highlighting rule of law issues related to the current cabinet, such as the dual citizenship issue. GERB campaigns under a “stop the chaos” slogan and considers the actions of the caretaker government on the rule of law – both its attempts to reform the legal system and the dual citizenship scandal – to be contributing to the turmoil in the country. 

Most of the parties that existed while GERB was in power do not focus strongly on rule of law issues. New political movements such as the “We Continue the Change” coalition and the “There Is Such a People” party concentrate on long-standing issues such as corruption, independence of the judiciary and the status of prosecutors, looking particularly into developments during GERB’s time in power. Improving the efficiency of the judiciary is another item that is high on the agenda of the two abovementioned new parties, with the digitalisation in courts featuring in their programmes. 

Bulgaria is subject to a special EU monitoring mechanism that covers the rule of law, the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). How has the EU engaged with Bulgaria on this topic recently? 

The European Commission issued its last CVM report on the situation in Bulgaria in October 2019, having considered that the country has made sufficient progress in improving the rule of law. However, during the presentation of the 2021 EU-wide rule of law reports, Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders hinted that unless the rule of law situation in Bulgaria improved – particularly on judicial independence, the autonomy of prosecutors and corruption – the Commission might return to drafting CVM reports on Bulgaria, although it is unclear how they would relate to the general rule of law reports. In any case, this is a clear indication from the Commission that Bulgaria needs to overcome its ongoing political crisis and start working towards meaningful improvements of the rule of law. 

The ongoing rule of law issues in Bulgaria have also led the Commission to so far refrain from approving the country’s pandemic-related Resilience and Recovery Facility plan, which amounts to €6,5 billion and was submitted by the Bulgarian government in October 2021. 

What is next for the rule of law in Bulgaria after the elections?

The GERB party is leading in the polls and looks likely to win the election. The political landscape has changed slightly since the July snap elections, with the new “We Continue the Change” coalition led by the previously mentioned former economy minister Kiril Petkov running on a pro-EU and anti-corruption platform polling highly. Despite these changes, I believe there is a high chance that the electoral outcome – once again – will not lead to a lasting government and Bulgarians may head to the polls once more early next year, extending political instability and uncertainty at a time when the country urgently needs reforms and strengthening of the rule of law.

For the most important facts on the elections and the rule of law, check out our at-a-glance overview or download the hyperlinked pdf version below.

Democracy Reporting International (DRI) works to improve public understanding of the rule of law in the EU as part of the re:constitution programme funded by Stiftung Mercator. Sign up for DRI’s newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to find out more about the rule of law in Europe.

Photo credit: Sami C / CC-BY-2.0

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