"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 the Bulgarian electorate, fed up with economic hardship and GERB, would decline to vote (as many predicted), swing hard left against the politics of austerity, move further right toward ethnic nationalism, or drift away from the EU toward Russia. Or, the country would end up a divided mess even less capable of dealing with the economic crisis. Indeed, up until election day many observers believed that an opposition candidate would win and early general elections would be called. They were troubled by the prospect of such instability on the EU's periphery at the precise moment the union is frantically dealing with the gravest crisis in its history.

The results, however, dashed the direst of predictions. Almost half of all registered voters participated in both rounds of elections -- belying the fear that Bulgaria had given up on the electoral process altogether. Plevneliev came out ahead in initial voting and won 52.5 percent of the vote in the runoff, beating Ivailo Kalfin, the Socialist candidate, by five percent. The classically liberal candidate, Meglena Kuneva, who was Bulgaria's first European consumer affairs commissioner, finished the first round of voting with 14 percent but did not qualify for the runoff. Even so, a significant number of Bulgarians appear to back her policies -- giving hope that liberals might one day regain their strength in Bulgarian politics. Radical right-wing parties were among the biggest losers. The leader of the hypernationalist Ataka party, Volen Siderov, who five years ago reached the second round of the presidential elections, got less than four percent of the vote -- the worst result in his party's history. This is good news for Bulgaria and Europe.

For his part, Plevneliev is also a ressauring choice. He is a pragmatic manager who entered politics just two years ago, after a successful career in the construction industry. He speaks fluent German and English and is not tainted by corruption scandals. He is also closer to Brussels than Moscow -- a marked contrast to the country's outgoing president, who was the Kremlin's closest ally in Bulgarian politics. Plevneliev is reluctant to support Russia's energy projects in Bulgaria and is also determined to Europeanize public administration. Although the Bulgarian president's role is largely ceremonial, Plevneliev's stated ambition of turning the presidential office into a brain trust bodes well.

But beyond Plevneliev, the election's real winner was current Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, a political maverick who combines Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's baroque political manner with an aptitude for German-style fiscal discipline. Since founding GERB, Borisov has won all the elections he has entered and has managed to turn GERB into the country's most powerful party since the fall of communism. The party now controls all of the important national government seats and all those in major municipalities.

Theoretically, Plevneliev could act as a counterweight to Borisov -- especially on the question of how close Bulgaria should be to Brussels. But Plevneliev does not have his own political support base, which he would need to play this role. Indeed, many observers believe that Plevneliev will initially toe the GERB line and that the party will gradually grow less tolerant of the opposition and media.

So, the recent elections have both their low and high points. They were the worst organized in the country's recent history, and there are widespread allegations about vote manipulation and buying. The opposition does not contest Plevneliev's win, but it does plan to go to court over some mayoral contests. No matter the outcome, the chaos and irregularities of the electoral process only deepened the public's cynicism about politics. During the next election cycle, fewer might vote.

The elections show, moreover, that the European Union has lost some of its luster for Bulgarians. The great hope that the union would help the Bulgarian economy and act as a guarantee against corruption and undemocratic behavior has faded. In the early and middle part of this decade, Bulgarian citizens viewed Brussels as their closest ally against the misdeeds of their democratically elected elites. Today, Bulgarians have started to view Brussels as an ally of those same elites. Rather than pressing for reform or endorsing the public's demand for change, players in Brussels tend to support either GERB or the Socialist Party, thus endorsing the status quo.
Now the high points: Voters did not usher in a new era of right-wing radicalism, and even if Bulgarians are more ambivalent toward the EU, they realize that there is no credible alternative to it. So all the major parties and candidates at least paid lip service to more effective cooperation with the EU. And at the very least, Plevneliev will not pull Bulgaria any further from the EU -- an option that currently tempts many European leaders. Finally, consolidation of almost one-party rule will make it easier for the GERB government to pursue painful reforms in a time of fiscal crisis.

So even if the union is not saved by its periphery, it will not be destroyed by it, either. The elections did not change everything -- perhaps not such a bad thing in this case.

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  • IVAN KRASTEV is Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.
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