Founded just two months ago on a platform of fighting corruption, the upstart political party is already winning hearts and minds, if not actual votes.
A February 27 poll by Alpha Research suggests the right-wing upstart—running in coalition with the left-wing Greens and DEOS parties—will not win enough support to win seats in Bulgaria’s Parliament during elections later this month.
But Yes, Bulgaria’s founder, Hristo Ivanov, is playing a long game.
“We have to break the system that the Bulgarian oligarchy tries to reinstate,” he said upon launching his party in early January. “We will ensure the rule of law and efficient and accessible justice.”
To do so, Ivanov must convince Bulgarian’s to strike back at the country’s Mafia, whose influence extends to all facets of public and private life. Critics in Brussels blame corruption for Bulgaria’s slow economic growth rate, which has hovered around one percent of GDP since 2010.
Most intractable: the ostensible challengers to Mafia reign—government prosecutors and a free media—are in on the game in Bulgaria. They partner with organized crime to thwart efforts at reform.
Anti-corruption baby steps
Last year, a bill in Bulgaria’s parliament that would create an anti-corruption agency with full powers to conduct investigations—involving personal properties and conflicts of interest of high level officials—was applauded by the European Commission. But it ultimately failed to gain traction in Bulgaria.
A few select cases of high-level corruption have resulted in final convictions.
The country’s failure to root out corruption has also cost Bulgaria hundreds of millions of dollars in European aid.
So when Ivanov, who had served as Justice Minister in Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s second cabinet, spoke up against Bulgaria’s oligarchs and swore to restore the rule of law in the country, he ignited immediate and transversal enthusiasm in the Bulgarian society and among the Bulgarian diaspora.
Ivanov broke up with Borisov’s government in December 2015, after constitutional amendments approved by the ruling majority significantly diluted the impact of the judicial reforms he had championed.
Determined to distance himself corruption, Ivanov felt Borisov’s cabinet wanted to actually protect the old system. A year later he established Yes, Bulgaria on an anti-corruption platform.
The Empire Strikes Back
When Yes, Bulgaria was targeted by a harassment campaign by opponents, who attempted to disqualify it from the March 26 elections, none of its founders seemed surprised.
Two days before the Feb. 6 deadline for the election registration of individual parties with the Central Election Commission (CEC), three individuals filed claims in court to dispute the registration of Yes, Bulgaria.
Sofia City Court had cleared Yes, Bulgaria on January 30, as in compliance with Bulgaria’s Political Parties Act.
A single appeal was lodged in the name of Dobromir Donev, who was among the first to have joined ranks with Yes, Bulgaria. A second claim was filed under the name of another party founder, Vera Assenova, who vocally denied having ever lodged such appeal and argued she may be victim of identity fraud.
Interviewed by public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio, protestor Assenova posited that the claim lodged in her name was a mere “provocation” intended to stop Yes, Bulgaria and its supporters. In fact, Ivanov’s party was ultimately prevented from registering as an individual party with the CEC due to the missed deadline for election registration.
Bulgarian regulations prescribe that once the claims are lodged and the statutory court fees paid by the complainants, the claims are transmitted to the Supreme Court of Cassation, who has to issue a ruling within 14 days. Naturally, the Supreme Court did not hand down a decision by the February 8 deadline.
Ivanov promptly refocused his attention to enable Yes, Bulgaria’s registration as a coalition with DEOS and the Greens, who respectively champion the rule of law and the environmentalist cause in Bulgaria, and on February 8 formalized his application with the CEC. In one day only, 20,000 Bulgarians enthusiastically endorsed Ivanov’s call after a sensational deployment of forces was mobilized to collect signatures in support of Yes, Bulgaria’s registration.
As the previous claims were withdrawn, new obstacles surfaced when four complainants lodged new claims against the registration of Yes, Bulgaria as a coalition. Again, the identity of at least two of the complainants appeared to be questionable, while a third complainant argued that Yes, Bulgaria’s coalition was allegedly “misleading” to a Bulgarian company, Times Media Ltd, that had disputed the legal value of the signatures collected since DEOS’ involvement in the coalition had not been disclosed.
Finally, Yes, Bulgaria announced on February 15 that all four claims were definitively dismissed by Bulgaria’s Supreme Administrative Court, which found them invalid on the grounds that Bulgarian electoral regulations only admit appeals against CEC’s refusals of registration.
As Bulgaria’s official campaign period began on February 24, the country is expected to face an extremely fragmented electoral scenario. Nine political parties and eighteen coalitions—including Yes, Bulgaria—will be competing for representation at the upcoming parliamentary elections. Early projections suggest that none of the parties will win a solid majority; not even GERB, a populist party that is a member of the European People’s Party, which is currently leading the polls by a margin of less than 2% over Kornelia Ninova’s Bulgarian Socialist Party.
Alpha Research deems Yes, Bulgaria capable of surprises, as also indicated by the impressive traction the coalition attracted over its brief lifespan. It remains to be seen whether such a decidedly anti-establishment force will be allowed to make its voice heard within Bulgaria’s dysfunctional political infrastructure, or whether prevailing political and economic interests will ensure its marginalization, in line with Bulgaria’s consolidated trend of corrosive lack of accountability and governance based on personal deal making.