Multiple parties compete in Bulgaria’s democratic system, which features peaceful transfers of power between rival parties. The country continues to struggle with political corruption and organized crime. Though the media sector remains pluralistic, outlets face pressure from political and business interests, and ownership concentration remains a problem. Ethnic minority groups, particularly Roma, face discrimination. Despite funding shortages and other obstacles, civil society groups remain active and influential.
- The country was plunged into another round of political crisis when the coalition government of Prime Minister Kiril Petkov lost a parliamentary no-confidence vote just seven months after being formed.
- After the parliament then failed to elect a new government, snap elections were called for October—the fourth parliamentary elections since April 2021. The result was yet another fragmented parliament which at year’s end was still struggling to elect a regular government. Due to political instability, lawmakers struggled to address a number of crises during the year, including spiking inflation and other troubles related to the full-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine.
- In December, the caretaker government moved rapidly to amend the electoral code to reintroduce paper ballots, prompting protests among citizens who argued that a shift away from digital voting machines could facilitate fraud.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The president, directly elected for up to two five-year terms, is the head of state. The prime minister, who serves as head of government, is chosen by the legislature. Though presidential powers are generally limited, in the event that parliament cannot form a government the president has the power to dissolve the National Assembly, schedule new elections, and appoint a caretaker government.
In November 2021, incumbent president Rumen Radev was reelected with 65.8 percent of the vote in the second round of the presidential elections. Radev, an independent candidate, was supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the We Continue the Change party (PP), and the anti-elite There Is Such a People party (ITN). The election was assessed by international observers to be generally competitive and free, though some irregularities, including problems with voting machines, were noted.
In December 2021, the newly elected parliament confirmed Kiril Petkov, a member of the PP, as prime minister. In June 2022 ITN withdrew its ministers from the government and joined an opposition-led no-confidence vote that toppled the government. The parliament failed to form a new government; President Radev dissolved it in early August, called new elections for October 2, and appointed a caretaker government led by Prime Minister Galab Donev. At year’s end the parliament remained fragmented and had not elected a regular government.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The unicameral National Assembly, with 240 members, is elected every four years in 31 multimember constituencies.
Regular parliamentary elections were held as scheduled in April 2021, and two more elections were called that year after parliament failed to form a regular government. The PP, at that time a newly formed, centrist party, won the third set of parliamentary elections with 25.5 percent of the vote. It formed a coalition government with the BSP, the ITN, and the Democratic Bulgaria alliance (DB). After forming, the coalition—which occupies 134 seats in the National Assembly—announced that it would govern based on a shared anticorruption platform.
All three parliamentary elections held in 2021 were deemed to be generally competitive and free by international election observation missions. However, alleged instances of voter intimidation and vote-buying by various groups, including by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) party, were reported; such irregularities are persistent in economically and socially vulnerable communities. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) election observation mission also reported the “massive” misuse of government resources by the incumbent Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) during the April 2021 elections.
After the fall of the Petkov government in June 2022 and the dissolution of parliament in early August, President Radev called early elections for October 2, 2022. Election monitors found the polls generally free and fair, though OSCE observers noted that the president and the government he appointed played “a prominent part” in the electoral campaign by issuing several statements criticizing Petkov’s government.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||3.003 4.004|
The Central Election Commission (CEC) administers Bulgaria’s elections and generally works professionally and impartially, though some flaws have been reported in past elections. In recent years, changes to the electoral framework have been introduced just ahead of elections with little opportunity for debate or public comment, some of which have had negative effects for electoral administration. In late 2022, the caretaker government moved rapidly to amend the electoral code to reintroduce paper ballots, prompting protests among citizens who argued that a shift away from digital voting machines could facilitate fraud.
The OSCE, in its assessment of the October 2022 elections, noted that “several longstanding concerns” about the electoral process persisted, including “inconsistencies and ambiguous provisions” that negatively affected election administration and media coverage of the campaign.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Political parties operate freely. The political-party landscape is quite volatile, featuring both established parties like the BSP and DPS, as well as cycles in which new parties emerge while others decline or disappear. Several new parties emerged and gained power in 2020 and 2021, including both the ITN and the PP, members of the coalition government formed after the November 2021 parliamentary elections. Yet another newcomer—Bulgarian Rise, led by former prime minister Stefan Yanev—entered the parliament in the October 2022 elections.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
There have been multiple peaceful transfers of power between rival parties through elections since the end of communist rule in 1990.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||3.003 4.004|
Bulgarians are generally free to make independent political choices. However, limited public funding and unlimited private funding for political parties leaves parties vulnerable to undue influence by private and corporate donors. Vote-buying remains an endemic problem. People in smaller communities (including Roma, but not only) are frequently pressured to vote for the party that controls the city council or has appointed the mayor, or for the party favored by the biggest employers in the area (a phenomenon known as a “controlled” or “corporate” vote).
Prominent businessmen dominate major political parties and exert influence over party platforms and policy decisions, and some are also able to advance their agenda through media holdings. The problem of business influence in politics is exacerbated by a lack of transparency in campaign finance laws.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
While marginalized groups generally have full political rights, the law dictates that electoral campaigns must be conducted in the Bulgarian language, which hinders outreach to non-Bulgarian-speaking minority groups. The ethnic Turkish minority is represented by the DPS, but the Roma are more marginalized. Small Romany parties are active, and many Roma reportedly vote for the DPS, though none hold seats in the parliament. Courts have continued to deny registration to the political party OMO Ilinden, which seeks legal recognition of a Macedonian ethnic minority in Bulgaria.
Members of far-right nationalist parties have engaged in hate speech against Roma, ethnic Turks, Jews, Muslims, migrants, and refugees, among other groups, particularly during election periods.
Women are underrepresented in parliament, and the inclusion of women’s issues in politics is generally lacking.
So-called oligarchs exert influence on the vote in smaller municipalities and within marginalized groups in particular, an issue referred to as the “controlled” or “corporate” vote.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3.003 4.004|
Elected executive and legislative officials in general are able to set and implement policies without undue interference from external or unelected entities. However, “oligarch” politicians exert influence on policy making and on legislative support for the government.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, has struggled to meet the bloc’s anticorruption requirements amid resistance from much of the political class. Anticorruption laws are not adequately enforced, including in high-profile cases, contributing to a culture of impunity.
In 2022, during the short-lived Petkov government, actions against corrupt practices introduced by the previous GERB governments were undertaken. The state reclaimed phytosanitary control over the Bulgarian-Turkish border in May, for example (though a court later overturned the move); the previous lax controls had been criticized for allowing agricultural products with unacceptable levels of pesticides into the country, and allegedly had led to an increase in drug smuggling. Under Petkov’s administration, authorities also said they had identified billions of dollars’ worth of public construction contracts that were signed in the absence of proper procurement procedures.
Meanwhile, the March 2022 arrest of former prime minister Boyko Borissov on suspicion of corrupt dealings while in office—allegations linked to investigations by the EU prosecutor’s office—did not result in charges against him. (The arrest itself was deemed illegal by a court in August, on grounds of procedural irregularities.)
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
Although Bulgaria has laws meant to ensure that the government operates with transparency, they are only partially enforced. While the transparency in the work of Parliament, the cabinet, and municipal bodies has increased considerably in recent years, public access to information about budgets and spending of various government agencies is sometimes inadequate or presented in an inaccessible way.
Government transparency improved during the short-lived Petkov government. The caretaker government appointed by President Radev has been less open about decisions, as well as reasons for the dismissal and appointment of new senior officials at key governmental offices and ministries.
|Are there free and independent media?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution protects freedom of expression, including for the press, but journalists face threats and pressure from private owners or public media management. Even though the media sector remains pluralistic, many outlets are dependent on financial contributions from the state (through advertising), effectively resulting in pressure to run government-friendly material. Ownership concentration remains a problem.
During the Petkov government there were no reports of governmental pressures over journalists either in private or in the public media. However, private media ownership remains opaque, raising concerns of undue business and political influence over editorial content.
Journalists can face defamation suits in relation to legitimate investigative work. In 2022, the private investment company Eurohold filed a defamation case that threatens the survival of the investigative site Bivol, which had investigated its fundraising activities. Also during the year, the prosecutorial office pressured an investigative journalist and the editor in chief of a major business weekly, Capital, demanding that they reveal their sources of information.
In October 2022 the Vazrazhdane (Revival) party introduced to the parliament a Russian-style law on the registration of “foreign agents” that would, among other things, require media that had received 1,000 lev ($560) or more from a foreign source to register as a “foreign agent.” (This designation has been used elsewhere to demonize legitimately operating media and nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] as tools of foreign meddlers.)
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||3.003 4.004|
Religious freedom is generally respected, but members of minority faiths in the mostly Orthodox Christian country have reported instances of harassment and discrimination, and some local authorities have prohibited proselytizing and other religious activities by such groups. A 2016 law that imposed fines for the wearing of face-covering garments in public locations was widely understood to be directed against Muslims.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is generally upheld in practice.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution. However, Bulgaria’s criminal code allows for legal secret surveillance of citizens in a wide range of cases, and concerns persist that authorities have misused such surveillance laws in order to monitor citizens who criticize the government. However, there were no reports of such scandals in 2022.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
The authorities generally respect constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
NGOs operate freely and have a degree of influence, though they experience funding shortages, often rely on foreign donors, and sometimes face hostility from politicians and interest groups. In October 2022, the far-right Russophile political party Revival filed a draft law requiring all media and private persons receiving foreign funding of 1,000 lev or more to register as “foreign agents.” In a way reminiscent of the law introduced in Russia in 2012, it aims to ban “foreign agents” from offering educational activities, working with the government, and engaging in other activity. The bill has not drawn support from other parties in parliament.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
Workers have the right to join trade unions, which are generally able to operate, but some public employees cannot legally strike. Collective bargaining is legal, and collective contracts are listed in a specialized public registry. While trade unions partner with the government and the business community to discuss public budgets and other issues like retirement age, pension reforms, and health care reforms, their influence is weak.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||3.003 4.004|
Bulgaria’s judiciary has benefited from legal and institutional reforms associated with EU membership, but is still prone to politicization. Despite significant legislation formally guaranteeing judicial independence, the members and governing bodies of the judiciary often act in accordance with the ruling majority.
A Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) is responsible for judicial and prosecutorial appointments and management, with half the members (six judges, four prosecutors, and an investigator) elected by their peers and half by a two-thirds parliamentary majority. Bulgarian legal observers have reported that in practice, requiring a two-thirds majority vote in parliament to appoint SJC members has allowed political parties—including minority parties such as DPS—to exert undue influence over the selection and appointment of the country’s top magistrates.
The Supreme Administrative Court has controversially ruled to annul government decisions. One such ruling in 2022 annulled the government decision to return phytosanitary control over a Turkish-Bulgarian border crossing 2022 to a private company.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||2.002 4.004|
Constitutional rights to due process are not always upheld. Police have been accused of misconduct, including arbitrary arrests and failure to inform suspects of their rights. The arrest in March 2022 of former prime minister Borissov on suspicion of corruption while in office did not follow the procedural rules and in August was held illegal by a court, reflecting occasional violations of due process in Bulgaria.
Public trust in the justice system is low due to its reputed vulnerability to political and outside pressure.
The relatively lengthy seven-year mandate granted to the prosecutor general and the lack of effective accountability mechanisms have long been noted as major problems with the prosecutorial office, weakening due process and rule of law in the country. The prosecutor general’s strong influence with regard to career promotion and within the SJC inhibits individuals from voicing and investigating allegations of misconduct within the office.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
Although the population faces few acute threats to physical security, police brutality, including abuse of suspects in custody, remains a problem. Overcrowding and violence plague many of Bulgaria’s prisons. Organized crime is still an issue.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2.002 4.004|
Ethnic minorities, particularly the Roma, face discrimination in employment, health care, education, and housing, though the government and NGOs operate a number of programs meant to improve their social integration. Authorities periodically demolish illegally constructed or irregular housing—mostly in areas occupied by Roma—without providing alternative shelter. The Romany minority was also subject to disproportionately severe pandemic-related restrictions throughout 2020.
Migrants and asylum seekers have reportedly faced various forms of mistreatment by Bulgarian authorities, including beatings and extortion.
Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal, but societal bias against LGBT+ people persists. While anti-LGBT+ violence has been significantly underreported in Bulgaria, and largely goes unaddressed by authorities, there were no registered homophobia-motivated hate crimes in Bulgaria in 2022, and LGBT+ groups note some slowly increasing tolerance toward LGBT+ people. To date, homophobia has not been added to the penal code as an aggravating factor in hate crimes.
A gender equality law passed in 2016 was designed to foster equal opportunity for women, but discrimination in employment persists: women are employed less often and paid less than men.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
For the most part, Bulgarians face few major restrictions on their freedom of movement. However, the government restricts the ability of asylum seekers to move outside of the district where they are housed.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
The legal and regulatory framework is generally supportive of property rights and private business, though property rights are not always respected in practice, and corruption continues to hamper business and investment. The gray economy of undeclared business activity has been estimated at over 20 percent of the country’s economy. Attempts at business raiding, including with the suspected assistance of state institutions and the prosecutorial office, are perceived to be on the rise and were among the triggers of major antigraft protests in 2020–21.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||3.003 4.004|
The law generally grants equal rights to men and women regarding personal status matters such as marriage and divorce. However, Bulgaria does not recognize same-sex marriages or same-sex unions, nor does it allow same-sex couples to adopt or register as parents of a child. The European Court of Justice in late 2021 ruled that a lesbian couple’s daughter—born in Spain in 2019 to a Bulgarian national and a British national but considered stateless herself—must be issued a Bulgarian passport, raising hopes that this issue would be finally resolved in Bulgaria.
Domestic violence remains a problem. People who have experienced domestic violence and NGOs addressing gender-based violence claim that state authorities are often ineffective in providing protection and pursuing criminal charges when abuse is reported.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Labor laws provide basic protections against exploitative working conditions, but they do not extend in practice to gray-market employment. Roma and other ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to trafficking for sexual and labor exploitation. Although the government has continued to step up efforts to combat trafficking, shelter victims, and punish perpetrators, these measures have not matched the scale of the problem, and punishments remain light in practice.
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