Sofia will be ruled by a non-GERB mayor for the first time in 18 years, after the contender of the biggest national party Anton Hekimyan failed to reach the runoff. Instead, Vassil Terziev managed a clear lead in the first round, gaining 37% of the vote and will face leftist trade unionist candidate Vanya Grigorova, who pulled ahead of Mr Hekimyan with 20,7% against 18.9%.
As predicted, this remains the only large breakthrough of the reformist parties, who performed well in several other bigger cities like Plovdiv, Varna and Veliko Tarnovo, but remain runners-up in all of them and will have a hard time overcoming GERB in the second round next week. Vazrazhdane's expected breakthrough failed to materialize.
The first round of the local elections was marred by a scandal linked to the security of the voting machines, instigated by the National Security Agency (DANS) and blown out of proportion by politicians from all parliamentary parties except for WCC-DB. Under pressure from politicians, on Friday, the State Electoral Commission (CIK) decided to entirely withdraw the voting machines, which not only undermined the elections' credibility, but also opened the door to manipulations from the old days of paper balloting.
IT vs. Unionist: The battle for Sofia
While the winner of the first round of the elections in Sofia was not a surprise, the runner-up was. Ms Grigorova, a popular face on the left but disassociated from the big socialist party, BSP, managed to lift her profile with grassroots campaigning for social causes to outpace GERB's last-minute, unorthodox choice - ex-journalist and TV anchor Anton Hekimyan.
Ms Grigorova is highly unlikely to pull off a miracle in the second round, as Sofia has traditionally been an anti-communist bastion. But her success in round one showed the potential for a charismatic left-wing candidate who shuns issues such as the "third gender" and liberal values that obsess BSP head Kornelia Ninova.
As for the municipal council, it appears that WCC-DB performed even better than their mayoral candidate and have won just under 40% of the vote. This would give them up to 26 out of 61 seats. GERB also outperformed their nominee and will have 13 councilors with 20% of the vote, while BSP underperformed Ms Grigorova and won only 13,4% of the vote, but will still have a larger representation of 9 local councilors. Vazrazhdane will have 7 councilors, while TISP and another conservative rightist coalition, KOD, will have 3 representatives each. This leaves the door open for several colorful majorities at local level.
The other big cities
Preliminary results show that four of the regional cities are likely to have an elected mayor in the first round. In at least eight towns, the outcome of the battle will be decided in ballots next Sunday.
Among the cities that will certainly have a mayor after the first round, we see stable bastions of the status quo parties. In Burgas Dimitar Nikolov (GERB) will remain a mayor for the fifth time in a row after winning 55% of the vote. His party, however, would likely have to rely on others, as it scores significantly worse when it comes to councilors, only receiving 44% of the vote. In Stara Zagora, GERB's Zhivko Todorov also remains mayor as he won 51%, but the situation is similar in the council, where his party only got 31,4% of the ballots. In Pernik, Stanislav Vladimirov, who used to be associated with BSP, but is now backed by a local coalition and supported by GERB, also won outright, likewise MRF's Erol Miumun in Kardzhali.
In Plovdiv, the GERB candidate Kostadin Dimitrov with 34.5% and Ivaylo Staribratov from WCC-DB, who lagged behind with 19.2%, will proceed to the runoff. In Varna the intrigue is just as interesting - incumbent mayor Ivan Portnih (GERB), who accumulated significant negatives during his previous mandates, finished the first round almost even with the WCC-DB candidate Blagomir Kotsev (28.5% against 24.6%).
Other places where GERB continues to lead, but will face off candidates from their non-coalition partners from WCC-DB include Veliko Tarnovo and Blagoevgrad. In Haskovo, Pleven and Ruse the GERB candidates will face candidates backed by local coalitions (and, in the case of Ruse - by BSP).
The machine voting ban that overshadowed the election
The election was marred by a last-minute attack on the voting process by a number of institutions, parties and political leaders. It all started on Friday, when Toshko Yordanov from TISP said that he had seen a DANS report alleging that deputy minister of Electronic Governance Mihail Stoynev had taken pictures of the code used in the voting machines, which, according to the TISP MP, could have been used to tinker with the final results of the elections.
It later turned out that the DANS report was not authorized by the head of the agency, but only by his deputy, did not really claim that Mr Stoynev's actions were illegal (he was never questioned over it) and was not stamped as classified - likely to instigate its distribution by the politicians that got their hands on it.
As a result, CIK convened an emergency meeting and banned machine voting at the upcoming elections. Despite attempts by WCC-DB to take the CIK decision to court, the Supreme Administrative Court said it would not rule on the case before Monday, practically affirming the ruling to ban machine voting use in the crucial first round.
At first it seemed possible that the machine voting issue could topple the coalition. Thousands gathered in protest against the CIK decision on Saturday, calling the decision scandalous and an attack on democracy. However, WCC-DB leaders remained muted - partially because of the ban on campaigning on the day before voting - and the only comment so far has come from WCC's Daniel Lorer, who said that despite the shake-up, the current majority has "no alternative" as of now.
Beyond the machines, there were a number of serious problems with the elections. Interior Minister Kalin Stoyanov told bTV that the police had proof that every big political party had participated in vote-buying schemes. He cited the mayor of a locality with a penitentiary where his inmates were set free and sent to clean the yards of local inmates who had pledged their vote to him. Later, he told Nova TV that there were 1815 reported violations during the campaign, compared to 954 in 2019, while the number of pre-trial proceedings has increased threefold, from 60 in 2019 to 164 now.
It would also be interesting to find out how many of the ballots cast would turn out to be invalid after the removal of machine voting - the previous infamous record in this category was in 2019, when a total of 660,000 ballot papers, or 15% of all votes casted, were considered redundant over mistakes.
Last, but not least, comes the issue of low voter turnout. While the final data about voter turnout has not yet been released, it is certain that it will be higher than at the last national elections (40,9%), but far from the record in 2015 (53,6%) or the last local vote in 2019, when 49,8% took to the polls. With all these last-minute scandals and changes to the voting rules, it should not come as a surprise that Bulgarians are losing trust in the electoral process.