Is there a way to solve chronically unstable Bulgaria’s political equation without the answer coming out wrong?

“Bad infinity” is a sophisticated term, coined by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. If you are not at the philosopher’s level of abstruseness, you can vaguely define it as a riddle that one repeatedly tries to solve in the same way – and always fails.

Or, you can use Bulgaria’s political crisis as an example.

On 2 April, the country held its fifth parliamentary election in exactly two years. The only regular, non-caretaker government during that time was the fragile, four-party coalition under Kiril Petkov in the winter of 2021, but it lasted just half a year.

So many elections in such a short time is a European, if not a world record. A close contender is Israel, with five elections, two short-lived governments, and a third, embattled one over the past four years. Imagine you have Bulgarian and Israeli citizenship. In those four years you might have helped elect as many parliaments as others do in their entire lives.

Boyko and Bibi’s Balancing Act

The Israeli comparison is fitting: in both countries, the political winnings of one figure are at stake, a true joker indeed. In the last decade and a half, Bulgarian politics has been dominated by center-right Boyko Borisov, as Israel’s by center-right Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. Questions over the independence of the judiciary, and protests demanding it, play a role in both countries. And as with “Bibi,” many active Bulgarian citizens want “Boyko” out – but he still keeps on winning elections.

Well, “winning” might not be the precise term. As in the previous election last October, Borisov’s GERB party won more parliamentary seats than others, but far below a majority in the 240-member parliament. This is a stalemate. Some of the other parties do not want to join GERB in a coalition – and GERB itself does not want to join some of the others.

For example, GERB, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and the Bulgarian Socialist Party could in theory form a stable cabinet. Such a combination would struggle to gain popularity, though. All three parties have prominent members on the U.S. Magnitsky list of politicians suspected of corruption.

Borisov’s most serious challenger was the urban liberal coalition of We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB). Those two formations, part of Petkov’s short-lived government, joined forces recently to overcome Borisov. The plan was simple: they would finish first and then press GERB to support a minority government, without a formal coalition.

Calculations gave them hope: at the October election, PP-DB won 73 seats to 67 for GERB. Yet political math is different, and there is not always a definite answer.

The liberals lost 73,000 voters and came in second. And now they do not want to grant GERB the same arrangement they planned to offer. Their leaders hurried to announce that they would not support a cabinet proposed by GERB, or with GERB’s participation. Borisov himself is leaving the door open; a coalition with the liberals would be more uncomfortable for them than for him.

GERB and PP-DB have few differences of principle. Both support Ukraine and share similar approaches to the economy. They also have difficult relations with President Rumen Radev. The latter is important because, under the Bulgarian constitution, in such stalemates the president keeps the country going by appointing a caretaker government.

Borisov has argued with Radev before, and the PP-DB leaders are arguing with him now. This is an erratic love-hate triangle: two years ago it was the urban liberals with Radev against Borisov, today it’s Borisov and Radev against the urban liberals. Some public figures are now calling for a third option: a united pro-Western front against the president, whom they suspect of softness vis-a-vis Russia.

Short-Termism or the Long View?

However, more important things divide the two leading forces in Bulgarian politics. After all, We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria were created to unseat Borisov, whom they see as the main problem where the country’s reputation for corruption and inefficacy are concerned. The political crisis itself started in 2020 with protests against the then-Prime Minister Borisov and the country’s chief prosecutor. While in power, Petkov’s cabinet even ordered Borisov’s arrest – unlawfully, a court decided. Any formal coalition with GERB would be seen by many PP-DB supporters as sleeping with the devil. Many surmise that taking this step would ruin their chances at the important local elections this autumn.

The two political groupings may look similar but their voters are not. If we apply British writer David Goodhart’s famous dichotomy, PP-DB’s voters are the liberal Anywheres, while GERB’s resemble the conservative Somewheres. Deeply entrenched in their social media echo chambers, their electorates cheer for final victory.

But how? To keep going to the polls, again and again? Little has changed between last October and this April. “There is Such a People,” the party of TV personality Slavi Trifonov, which featured prominently in 2021 but totally fell from grace – and parliament – afterward, managed the 4% threshold by a whisker. And radical nationalist Vazrazhdane (Revival), which displays pro-Russian sympathies and wants Bulgaria out of NATO and, in the future, the eurozone, made another massive gain, finishing in third with 37 deputies.

Two years ago, Vazrazhdane had 78,000 voters. This time 358,000 people voted for them. A sixth snap election may help them grow further; a GERB plus PP-DB coalition – something party leader Kostadin Kostadinov claims the U.S. Embassy in Sofia is pushing for – could have a similar effect.

You can call this “stalemate,” “deadlock,” or “bad infinity.” The fact is that Bulgaria’s political crisis is far from resolved. Leaders can try to address it with very brave or very clever decisions. In that eventuality, infinity may come to look better.

Boyko Vassilev is the moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.