Fading hopes for change

Bulgaria and Romania

In Bulgaria and Romania, the EP elections coincide with national elections. Interminable political instability, corruption and socioeconomic tensions all contribute to voter fatigue. With the far right in the ascendant, 9 June could be a watershed.

In early June this year, Romanians will be summoned to polling booths for their fifth round of European Parliament elections. Voter turnout for Romania’s first three EP polls was dismal, with attendance hovering around the 30-percent mark. Add to this the fact that 2024 is a super-election year for Romanians, who will be called on to choose their mayors, MPs, EP representatives and president, all in the span of several months. 

In what may well be an attempt to minimise the toll that this will take on the state budget, as well as a strategy to avoid voter fatigue and curb the rise of the far right, the current ruling coalition (PSD–PNL) opted to merge the EP elections with local ones. Romania’s two ruling parties are historic rivals. PSD’s European affiliation lies with the centre-left Party of European Socialists, while PNL is a member of the European People’s Party centre-right group. As popular wisdom on Romanian politics would have it, the country’s rulers set the elections that Romanians care about least on the same date as the ones they care about most. Voter turnout in the most recent three rounds of local elections, 2020, 2016, and 2012 was around 50 percent.

While this is likely to have a positive impact on the EP election turnout, it also sets the stage for mainstream parties and candidates to focus their communication on mayoral campaigns and mostly to remain silent on European topics. This presents two distinct problems.

On the one hand, it allows the major parties to quietly carry on with their behind-the-scenes infighting, in a race to figure out who to ‘send to Brussels’. An EP candidate nomination is widely regarded as a strategy for party leaders to ‘exile’ undesirable members, often former public servants, without actually ousting them and risking a scandal. 

The PSD list holds several such examples, including disgraced former Bucharest mayor Gabriela Firea, who was the focus of a notorious 2023 journalistic investigation that revealed her family’s involvement in managing a number of retirement homes that were found to have abused the elderly residents. At the time of writing, Firea is the PSD candidate for Bucharest mayor, but has not yet withdrawn her EP candidacy. Also on PSD’s roll is current MEP Maria Grapini, infamous for her frequent public communication blunders. 

On the other hand, it clears the way for far-right political formations – most notably Alianța pentru Unirea Românilor (AUR) and the newly minted AUR breakaway S.O.S Party – to bid for voter attention with xenophobic, ultra-nationalistic, anti-European and isolationist rhetoric. 

The Romanian far right saw a massive boost in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it protested insistently against the enforcement of mask-wearing and vaccination. This landed with the Romanian population, as it echoed a widespread belief, highlighted by a March 2022 IPSOS survey indicating that Romanians both feared the side-effects of the COVID-19 vaccine and mistrusted its efficiency. 

The far right is also favoured among conservative and/or economically disenfranchised classes of the Romanian diaspora. EP candidate, S.O.S leader and Romanian senator Diana Șoșoacă is openly pro-Russian and has repeatedly asked the West to stop the war she claims it started in Ukraine. The AUR EP candidate list is equally contentious, featuring, among others, current MEP Cristian Terheș, who has vocally criticised the European Parliament for enforcing the surveillance of European citizens, while also espousing anti-vaccine, homophobic, transphobic and conspiratorial views.

As of the latest polls, AUR is poised to come in second or third in the EP elections, with SOS tailgating at around 5 percent. This means that Romania might end up sending two far-right parties to the EP rather than one. The concern is that populism is gaining serious ground in the country, as it is in many other European member states.

Meanwhile, Romania’s two major parties have entered an alliance that is purportedly trying to chip away at this anti-European upheaval. It remains to be seen whether this is a winning strategy for Romanian democracy in the longer term, or if their opponents’ tactic of offering their electorate several choices, albeit variations on the same theme, is a better long game. 

Also vying for MEP status are members of PNL, one of the parties in the country’s ruling coalition – who, much like PNL-backed Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, have largely remained silent on pressing issues. Other presumably viable EP candidates are running on behalf of a centre-right wing alliance of parties with various degrees of voter credibility issues (USR, PMP, Forța Dreptei). The list is completed by UDMR, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, an EPP member and current holder of two EP seats.

These are some of Romania’s would-be European players, gearing up on a national stage that has seen tensions rise over the past four years. At the top of a non-exhaustive list of confounding factors are Russia’s war in neighbouring Ukraine, Romania’s repeatedly foiled attempts at becoming a fully-fledged member of the Schengen area, and an acute cost-of-living crisis.

At the NATO summit in Madrid in 2022, Iohannis announced that, following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Romania would expand its defence spending to 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product. However, a NATO report for 2014–2023 published last year shows that the country managed to only spend 1.6 percent of its GDP in 2023, far below the minimal threshold requested by the alliance and well under average NATO expenditure. Only 21 percent of that money was used for acquiring technology – a paltry amount compared to the 53 percent spent by Poland. 

While Romania has provided military aid for Ukraine, its leaders have mostly kept quiet on the matter. At a European Council meeting in Brussels in March this year, President Iohannis stated that this was an intentional effort aimed at mitigating the risks of Russian interference. Romania’s Supreme National Defence Council 2023 report, sent to parliament for approval in March 2024 and released to the press in mid-April, shows Russian attempts at infiltrating Romanian defence institutions and the local Ukrainian refugee community, as well as eroding popular trust in the country’s military. This was reportedly achieved through cybersecurity attacks, efforts to gather intel on military exercises and Romanian military aid transports headed to Ukraine, as well as through pervasive and concentrated mass media disinformation campaigns.

Unlike other eastern European countries, Romania continues to support Ukraine in its effort to keep up grain exports via the Black Sea port of Constanța. As well as complaints of Ukrainian trucks crowding Romania’s northern and eastern border crossings, this nonetheless sparked three weeks of farmers’ and transporters’ protests early this year. 

Both groups were essentially asking the government for various forms of financial aid – the transporters demanded capping mandatory insurance thresholds at around €1,000, while the farmers pleaded for subsidies and preferential market conditions, both aimed at dampening the effects of Ukrainian grain transiting Romania. In early February 2024, Romanian PM Marcel Ciolacu brought the protests to a halt by promising (and subsequently delivering) an inter-ministerial committee for agriculture and transportation, whose mission would be to protect the interests of the two sectors involved in the protests.

Similar movements were noticeable in Bulgaria too: in 2022, then-PM Kiril Petkov announced plans for the Black Sea coast city of Varna to become a grain hub for Ukraine – yet these plans remain vague. Farmers’ protests peaked between January and February 2024, but calmed after 2023–2024 PM Nikolai Denkov promised compensation (but only for farmers who could prove recent losses).

While a 2023 survey conducted by the GLOBSEC’s Centre for Democracy & Resilience indicated that Bulgarians are still the biggest fans of Russian president Vladimir Putin among the eight central and eastern European countries surveyed (32 percent expressed a positive attitude), a UNHCR assessment issued that same year indicated that most Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria felt welcomed and supported. Similarly, an April 2024 poll conducted in Romania by INSCOP for News.ro showed that most locals do not perceive Ukrainians as a threat (37 percent are of the opposite opinion). 

According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration data for February 2024, more than 2.2 million Ukrainians had transited Bulgaria during the past two years and nearly 53,000 remain. The same organisation reports that 5.4 million Ukrainians transited Romania in the same span of time, with around 78,000 still in the country today. 

Cost of living: Over the worst?

Despite recently being partially admitted to the Schengen zone (border checks have been lifted at airports and ports), Romania and Bulgaria have yet to receive full membership in the bloc, which would include unrestricted crossings at land borders. Both countries complied with the requirements a long time ago, according to the EU Commission itself, but have been kept out by a veto by Austria and the Netherlands in late 2023. The Austrian interior minister continued to claim that it would be ‘wrong’ for his country to lift its veto against Romania and Bulgaria, given its concerns that the country could be used as a transit route by migrants from Africa and the Middle East. The reason for the opposition: the Austrian government’s fear of the growing far-right, which is on track to become the strongest party at the elections in autumn. 

Like most countries in Europe, Romania has seen prices – and, consequently, inflation – rise steeply over the past two years. According to the latest Eurostat data, March 2024 was the third month in a row that Romania topped the European inflation rate chart. That month, inflation in the country stood at more than double the EU average: 6.7 percent versus 2.4 percent. Yet considering that the country’s overall inflation was a whopping 9.7% in 2023 – itself an improvement on 12% in 2022 – this is actually progress. 

Inflation has been hitting harder in urban areas, where the rising costs of consumer goods have been piled onto higher taxation levels (35% on income, compared to 10% in rural areas). Consumer habits in the countryside, where 46% of Romanians live, are less dependent on supermarket price increases and more reliant on subsistence agriculture and shorter supply chains. In its latest macroeconomic forecast, updated in February 2024, Eurostat predicts gradual disinflation for Romania, meaning it is unlikely to see more cost-of-living protests soon, as it did in October 2022. Those were followed by several countrywide strikes, but also by two minimum wage increases.   

Amidst these trials and tribulations, Romanians remain fairly trusting of the EU and support their country’s membership. Most of these positive indicators were on the rise, albeit slightly, throughout last year, as shown by a special Eurobarometer published in autumn 2023. Strikingly, a massive 75% of Romanian respondents expressed their intention to vote in the 2024 European elections – above the EU average of 68 percent. This attitude might be linked to the Union’s enforcement of rule-of-law principles and its particular encouragement of Romania’s anti-corruption efforts. Last, but certainly not least, while Romania has historically lagged behind in absorbing EU funds, it has made strides over the past couple of years; these are reflected in improvements in infrastructure and agricultural activity that are clearly visible to citizens. 

In the runup to the EP elections, the attitudes harboured by young Romanians towards politics and their sentiments about the EU present a striking snapshot. A March 2024 survey of 800 Romanians aged 18 to 35 conducted by independent think tank IRES revealed that, while the European Union comes second on their list of most trusted institutions, 72 percent are not interested in Romanian politics and 68 percent believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. Most tellingly, 62 percent are strongly mistrustful of political parties.

Bulgaria’s election rollercoaster goes on… and on

Like Romania, Bulgaria will also head to the polls on 9 June to vote in not one, but two elections. For voters this will bring a feeling of both fatigue and dejà-vu. Bulgarians will be voting in the country’s sixth general elections in just three years, a stark symptom of the country’s ongoing political crisis.

In recent years, general elections, along with presidential and mayoral ballots, have been marked by tension and political clashes between GERB, Bulgaria’s dominant political force since 2008 – led by autocratic former prime minister Boyko Borissov – and the opposition, which ranges from reformist parties within GERB’s pro-western centre-right spectrum to pro-Russian voices. Bulgaria’s parties defy traditional left/right labels: pro-western factions straddle the centre right, while the left is only represented by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which often blurs political lines with the radical far-right party Revival. 

Despite being far-right and left respectively, Revival and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) are pro-Russian, expressing anti-western positions and spreading disinformation, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Revival consistently maintains a hardline stance, while BSP alternates between overt opposition and silent support. In the April 2023 elections, both parties failed to initiate referendums – Revival on adopting the euro and BSP on ‘gender ideology’ in schools. Both parties, but particularly the socialists, also face internal tensions.

The ongoing political paralysis has led to rapidly shifting alliances, the formation of unusual coalitions and various attempts at cooperation in the hope of finding a way out of the impasse – all of which have failed. Examples include GERB’s cabinet from 2014-2017, which included the now faded opposition party Reformist Bloc, and the brief tenure of We Continue the Change’s broad cabinet under Kiril Petkov from 2021 to 2022, which ended after coalition member There’s Such a People defected to GERB. The latest endeavour, a coalition between GERB and We Continue the Change under Nikolai Denkov in 2023–2024, collapsed abruptly due to disagreements over ministerial positions and judicial reforms, prompting GERB to call for new elections.

In 2020-2021, anti-establishment protests rocked the country, targeting GERB’s prolonged governance and its parliamentary allies from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, amid struggles in the healthcare system during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The protests, which were met with police violence, highlighted society’s desire for change and drew international attention to local issues. Frustration with Bulgaria’s political system boosted opposition parties, including We Continue the Change, Democratic Bulgaria, nationalists There’s Such a People, and the pro-Moscow Bulgarian Socialist Party. 

Despite widespread public dissatisfaction, GERB weathered all these storms and has maintained its influence. In fact, in 2024, the party appears even stronger. The party has now solidified its position through a recent reform, ironically sparked by measures meant to limit the power of Bulgaria’s pro-Moscow president, Rumen Radev. As part of their shared pro-western perspective – more of a utilitarian outlook for GERB and Movement for Rights and Freedoms – the coalition amended the constitution to limit the president’s rights to form an interim government. Now, the president cannot just form a caretaker cabinet on his or her own, but has to choose between the chairman of the National Assembly, the governor or deputy governor of the National Bank, the chairman or deputy chairman of the Chamber of Audit, or the ombudsman or deputies. 

Many current officials have ties to GERB from Borissov’s past cabinets. Bulgaria’s caretaker prime minister Dimitar Glavchev was a GERB MP from 2009 to2021 and was selected for his current post partly due to his other role as head of the Chamber of Audit. This strategy fits GERB’s pattern of eliminating the opposition by temporarily siding with it, while retaining institutional control.

Few hopes for genuine change

The dual elections in Bulgaria on 9 June are expected to reflect each other’s outcomes and party dynamics. GERB and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms are likely to secure another Pyrrhic victory, placing them in a parliament besieged by opposition forces.

On 8 May, a survey by Alpha Research pointed to GERB and United Democratic Forces winning both the general and the EP elections with room to spare, ahead of major opponents We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria (25.4 percent for GERB against 17.5 percent in the general elections, 25.1 percent against 18.5 percent).

On 10 May, another poll cited similar numbers and predicted that members of GERB, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, Democratic Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Socialist Party and Revival would be elected to the European Parliament. This would mean that Bulgaria’s EP group would stay predominantly pro-EU by a margin and be dominated by GERB. 

The vote on 9 June will be also marked by ideological division among Bulgarian voters – fuelled by the painful and in many ways unfinished transition from a communist regime to a market economy, and more recently by the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and rampant Russian disinformation, which has increased since 2022 (detailed most recently here by the Sofia-based NGO Human and Social Studies Foundation). The ongoing political stalemate is welcomed by Bulgaria’s Eurosceptic parties, which are hungry for power and looking to seize any opportunity, but which remain a fragmented presence on the scene.

Amidst these relentless internal conflicts, Bulgaria’s world is shrinking. Over the past four years, political and media discourse has increasingly turned inwards, neglecting the country’s role as an EU and NATO member and its potential influence on EU enlargement in the Western Balkans. The absence of clear communication and dialogue is leaving the Bulgarian population ever more susceptible to disinformation and populism, affecting voter decisions in both domestic and EU elections. This trend is expected to further marginalise opposition voices and impede debates on wider-reaching issues. 

Although Bulgaria’s pro-Russian parties rarely act in unison, they will remain a factor for the foreseeable future and carry the danger of nationalist and/or pro-Russia voices infiltrating the European Parliament. All eyes are on Bulgaria’s main far-right party Revival, founded in 2014 but a marginal force until it ramped up its aggressive rhetoric after the beginning of Bulgaria’s inoculation campaign against COVID-19. The party’s anti-vax stance eventually evolved into a more general anti-western and isolationist position after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The party has also repeated some lines from the Kremlin playbook: for example, in November 2022 Revival tried to draft a law against ‘foreign agents’, which like the law currently being contested by the protests in Georgia is essentially an effort to repress critical and liberal media. 

Revival has managed to strengthen its international presence: in February, the party’s leaders travelled to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party and then to Chisinau to meet and sign a partnership agreement with a Moldovan party bearing the same name and ideological affiliation. The party is also using the EP plebiscite and the general elections as an opportunity to reach out to a wider pool of voters. For instance, veteran Bulgaria National Radio journalist Petar Volgin, known for his pro-Kremlin stance, is now entering politics by running for the European Parliament with Revival. 

 The most recent surveys on the Bulgarian public’s political leanings show a divided but still predominantly pro-EU nation. A survey on 13 March pointed to 60% support for the EU but with many sceptical on increased migration (70%), the green deal (40%) or further aid from the EU to Ukraine (45%). Only 32% plan to vote in the European elections and 29% are still undecided on whether to head to the polls for the national elections. Bulgarian voters might be divided in their politics and beliefs, but they are united in their frustration over the prolonged parliamentary logjam and the general chaos of the country’s contemporary politics.

Both Romania and Bulgaria seem to be at a crossroads, and while this could be said throughout the turbulent recent histories of both countries, 2024 has a different flavour. With disillusioned electorates and fading hopes for change, the elections in both countries feel crucial for their EU perspectives. This crisis in trust is fertile soil for the far right, and populists will see a chance to gain ground across the spectrum. 

Published 31 May 2024
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Ioana Pelehatăi / Svetoslav Todorov / Eurozine



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