Courtesy Reuters

What the Bulgarian Elections Mean for the European Union

Plevneliev's Victory And The Dogs That Didn't Bark

"Elections don't change anything," reads graffiti scrawled across a wall in the center of Sofia. "If elections change[d] something, they would be banned." In the wake of this month's presidential and local elections, which culminated in a runoff for the presidency over the weekend, this may seem true. The ruling center-right party, the Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (known by its Bulgarian acronym GERB), stayed in power, winning several important mayoral seats and replacing the unpopular Socialist President Georgi Parvanov with its own candidate, Rosen Plevneliev. But underlying this seemingly anodyne string of events were several threats that did not materialize.

Bulgarian elections generally do not make headlines in Europe, but these were different. The country is the newest and poorest member of the European Union -- and one of the most corrupt. Before its acceptance into the union in 2007, Sofia had embarked on a course of fiscal discipline, which many assumed would lead to a rise in radical populist nationalism, diminish Bulgarians' formerly positive views of the EU, or spell the end of European-style liberalism on Europe's periphery. These concerns deepened as the global economic crisis forced ever-larger budget cuts, which drove protesters into Sofia's streets (much like those occupying other European capitals). Observers thus looked to the elections as a stress test.

Politically, meanwhile, Bulgaria is a strange animal. Democracy has survived there for the past two decades not because Bulgarians are happy with the governments they elect but because the system gives them a mechanism for expressing their rightful dissatisfaction. As a result of classic protest voting, most Bulgarian governments have not been reelected since the fall of Communism. And the actual election winners are often unpredictable. Twice in the last 20 years, an extraparliamentary party founded on the eve of the vote won the majority in parliament. As the Bulgarian sociologist Boryana Dimitrova once observed, "The party which will win the next elections is not registered yet."

Given all these factors, it seemed possible that

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