In 2021, it took Bulgarians a staggering three elections to arrive at a new government, but people finally seem to have got the change they were looking for. The four-party coalition that started work in December promises to draw a line under the long dominance of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. Voting was preceded by months of protests sparked by multiple corruption allegations about Borissov and associated oligarchs, and anger at the absence of action against those accused of corruption. The new government faces the tough task of trying to dismantle endemic corruption. It must focus on this rather than be distracted by the political manoeuvring that marked the campaign.

An era appears to have ended in Bulgaria. Boyko Borissov long dominated the political landscape, serving as prime minister from 2009 to 2013 and again from 2014 until 2021. He had a reputation of being a great survivor, a politically flexible operator whose party – Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) – kept winning elections.

All that changed on 13 December 2021 when Kiril Petkov became the new prime minister. He leads a party, We Continue the Change (PP), that only launched in September. He emerged the winner after Bulgaria held not one but three parliamentary elections in 2021, revealing high levels of political fragmentation and volatility in voting choices. It seemed many people wanted a break with Borissov – they just couldn’t agree on what they wanted instead.

Corruption anger to the fore

The backdrop to this series of elections was an outpouring of public anger about corruption. Bulgaria has long been not only the poorest European Union (EU) member, but also the one with the highest levels of perceived corruption – although the EU has been accused of acting as if corruption in Bulgaria isn’t an issue.

With a prime minister in power for so long, it seemed clear that corruption came from the top. Multiple corruption allegations swirled around Borissov and associated oligarchs. As corruption stories kept circulating, a mass protest movement erupted in 2020. At its peak it mobilised over 100,000 people on the streets of the capital, Sofia. Protesters dug in for the long haul, setting up camps and building barricades. Protests lasted from July 2020 all the way up to April 2021, when Borissov had to formally stand down ahead of what turned out to be only the start of an epic election season.

There’s a huge agenda ahead if institutionalised corruption is to be unravelled.

In that first election, GERB, running in alliance with the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), shed 20 of its seats, but the main opposition grouping, the Coalition for Bulgaria (BSP), also saw its support fall, losing 37 seats. In a change few commentators saw coming – since the power of protest movements is consistently underestimated – a third of seats were claimed by parties that had not been represented in the old parliament, including new parties formed as a direct response to protest anger.

In the 240-seat National Assembly, it would have taken a coalition with two other parties for either of the two main groups to command a majority. Attempts to form a government did not get very far, and a second election was called for July, with a caretaker government appointed – one that was to last longer than anyone expected.

An entertainer makes an impact

In the second election, preceded by yet more revelations of high-level corruption, this pattern of rejection of established parties continued. Support for both GERB and BSP fell further. The votes they lost kept flowing towards new parties.

In July, chief beneficiary of this shift was There is Such a People (ITN), a populist party that won the most seats, 65. ITN had been recently founded by Slavi Trifonov, a TV host and singer apparently trying to fashion his celebrity into political power.

This isn’t the first time this phenomenon has been seen, of course. In the USA, President Trump parlayed reality TV fame into high office. The UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson was a high-profile newspaper columnist and comic presence on TV shows before becoming a politician. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was an actor and comedian who played the president on TV before he became one for real. When people become disaffected with established parties, TV performers are well placed to ride populist waves to power.

But at times it wasn’t clear whether this was a real political project or an extended stunt. Trifonov won a parliamentary seat in April but never attended a session. When given a chance to try to form a government in April he made an attempt that was half-hearted at best.

ITN largely didn’t campaign or make political pledges. It didn’t act like a political party fighting an election. And many liked this. The fact that so many people voted for ITN was a sign of how unappealing the alternatives felt. People were, it seemed, prepared to back anything that looked like change and promised action on corruption. They were casting around for something new, while multiple non-established parties competed to offer the most attractive novelty.

The July election also proved the high watermark for the Democratic Bulgaria (DB) alliance, which included the Green Movement, gaining 34 seats. Winning 13 seats, one down from its April total, was the dramatically titled Stand Up.BG! We Are Coming! (IBG-NI) alliance, formed from multiple small parties and including the ‘Poisonous Trio’, the nickname of three protest leaders.

Enter a new party

For a moment, it seemed possible a grand coalition could be pulled together excluding the major parties, on the basis of a shared determination to challenge corruption. But that didn’t happen: ITN said it would not join a coalition but instead wanted to appoint a ‘government of experts’. Far from offering a fresh start, however, many of its suggested experts were politicians from the past. Its choice of prime minister was a recycled former deputy prime minister.

When that idea was rejected, ITN went the other way. Its second suggestion was a complete unknown who had previously appeared in a section of one of Trifonov’s TV shows called ‘Casting for Politicians’. ITN then withdrew its proposals and demanded fresh elections. Both GERB and BSP passed up when asked by the president if they wanted to take on the impossible task of trying to form a government.

That resulted in the year’s third election, held concurrently with the presidential election in November. Meanwhile the caretaker government continued in office. Many people viewed this quietly competent technocratic administration as better than anything else on offer.

And then in November a further new force emerged, dramatically changing everybody’s calculations. PP came from nowhere to finish first, claiming 67 seats. It was headed by two members of the caretaker government who stepped down to form the party – Petkov, who was caretaker economy minister, and Asen Vasilev, caretaker finance minister. They capitalised on the relative popularity of the caretaker government and offered the many voters looking for change a new, more sober option than the antics of the ITN.

The pattern of decline for established parties continued: GERB ended up 36 seats down on its 2017 total, while BSP had shed a staggering two thirds of its 2017 seats, falling to fourth place.

Many were evidently not finding the ITN joke funny anymore either: it lost 40 of the seats it had claimed just four months before. All the other anti-corruption parties also saw their vote fall: IBG-NI was left with no seats at all. PP, promising to unite the anti-corruption movement, hoovered up much of the anti-corruption vote.

PP was still far short of the 121 seats needed to govern. But clearly there was no appetite for a fourth election. The momentum was with PP, and in December a four-party cross-spectrum coalition under the motto of ‘zero tolerance to corruption’ was stitched together, led by PP and including BSP, DB and ITN.

Big challenges ahead

The new government is something of a crowded marriage of convenience, and it will undoubtedly face bumps in the road. But people certainly don’t want another election any time soon. After finally finding a way through the maze, they expect the government to get on with the job and will take a dim view of political point-scoring.

There’s a huge agenda ahead if institutionalised corruption is to be unravelled. In a promising start, in January 2022 the head of the anti-corruption agency resigned after the new government revoked his access to classified information. The government announced its intention to overhaul the agency. pointing to its lack of cases against high-level officials.

The government has also promised to reform the judiciary, long accused of being a key link in the chain of corruption. The Chief Prosecutor, Ivan Gashev, enjoys little public respect and has been a target of protests; his office acts as a roadblock against corruption cases. In January 2022, he also faced calls from PP to resign, although so far he is holding out.

There are other pressing issues. When it comes to media freedoms, the fact that a single oligarch, Borissov ally Delyan Peevski, owns 80 per cent of Bulgaria’s print media indicates the size of the problem to be challenged if democratic dialogue is to be deepened.

The economic struggles many people face are about to be intensified by major fuel price rises, as energy price caps ended at the start of the year. The EU’s lowest rate of vaccination take-up also needs to be tackled urgently.

Tangible action on these pressing issues will help restore some trust in politics. As well as fragmentation and novelty, the elections of 2021 were characterised by falling turnout: participation slid from 52.3 per cent in 2017 to only 38.4 per cent in November 2021, declining at each successive election.

Even turnout in the November presidential election, which saw incumbent Rumen Radev – a Borissov opponent and protest supporter – win outright in the first round, fell by 17.6 percentage points. Both by voting and not voting, people have made their disaffection abundantly clear. It’s time for a new generation of politicians to show they’re worth voting for.


  • The new government should focus on delivering tangible results in dismantling the machinery of corruption and holding high-level perpetrators to account.
  • The new government should commit to enabling and involving civil society as a vital safeguard against corruption and promoter of accountability.
  • The EU should play an active role and support the new government’s action against corruption and impunity.

Cover photo by Hristo Rusev/Getty Images