by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria's snap election fails to produce stable parliament

To understand why Bulgaria is faced with further political instability and possibly yet another general election one needs to look at the larger picture of life in this country that has struggled with democracy for exactly quarter of a century now.

First, to politics. The 5 October snap election was the second in about 15 months. The first, in May 2013, had been prompted by Boyko Borisov, then prime minister, who resigned amid spreading protests against poverty and the inability of his government to handle it that culminated in a dozen Bulgarians publicly committing the terrible act of self-conflagration. Borisov at the time felt his party, GERB, had not lost all its charisma, as epitomised by Borisov himself, and called the early election hoping his popularity was still high.

It was – but not enough. Borisov's party failed to garner sufficient support, and a fragile coalition between the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, the Turkish-dominated DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and the extremist nationalist Ataka was installed in Sofia.

No one thought that this sort of coalition would be long-lived – and the government did its best to dispel any doubts that it could. One of the first things it did was to appoint Delyan Peevski, an MP for the DPS and a media mogul, to a powerful security position giving him direct access to controlling the fight against organised crime.

Many Bulgarians, mainly in Sofia, could not stomach that. They felt that appointing Peevski to chair the DANS, roughly speaking Bulgaria's version of the FBI, was like appointing a child molester to the position of a school headmaster. Street rallies ensued. The summer of 2013 protesters, unlike the depressed and poor Bulgarians scratching to make a living who had been torching themselves a few months previously, were "beautiful and clever," as one writer billed them. They made a good impression. Some of them spoke English and carried placards that could be understood by foreign visitors. They cleaned up their bottles after their daily rallies in front of the government building in Central Sofia. The police were under orders to be generally tolerant, so no serious incident or violence occurred, in sharp contrast to the way Borisov had handled such matters during his tenure. The protesters, furthermore, were liked by the media.

What they demanded was transparency, an end to Bulgaria's long tradition of what they called Behind-the-Scene-ness, the sort of cloak-and-dagger attitudes that had become the rule rather than the exception in this Balkan nation of about 7 million. What they failed to understand, however, was that without a proper political platform and without solid support in the provinces, any effort to change the Bulgarian status quo would result in a return of Boyko Borisov and his GERB.

Their act was interpreted by many media and even by some foreign diplomats to be a manifestation of Bulgaria's inchoate civil society.

But what is civil society? Is it just the thrust of a few, perhaps a dozen thousand people to block the traffic in Sofia and perform light musical comedy acts to the bemusement of onlookers? Is it not measured, arithmetically, by the number of citizens going to the ballots at elections and casting their votes for politicians, young and old, that have coherent agendas designed to achieve concrete political, economic and social targets?

The first sign of the protesters' fallacy came soon after the beginning of the 2013 street rallies. It happened in Varna, the Black Sea coast town that for various reasons had become a hotbed of dissent. A by-election there failed to convince many to go to the ballots. In fact, the turnout in Varna was record low.


The protests in Sofia continued, an increasing number of Bulgarians felt disillusioned with the parties in power, and the senior partner in the Oresharski coalition, the BSP, splintered. The European Parliament elections in May 2014 showed that Boyko Borisov's GERB was still the strongest political grouping in Bulgaria. It was the clear winner.

The BSP, the DPS and Ataka realised their time was over. The coalition stepped down, a caretaker government was appointed by President Rosen Plevneliev, a former GERB minister, and a new snap election was called.

The political tableau it produced is even more dysfunctional than the previous one. As many as eight parties made it past the 4 percent threshold. These include the Reformist Bloc, what some consider to be a genuine centre-right agglomeration of small pro-Western parties that favour democracy and reforms. But they also include two radical nationalist parties, Ataka and the NFSB, or National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, and an incongruous political grouping led by a former journalist, Nikolay Barekov, who had been first a close friend and then a fierce critic of Boyko Borisov. They even include ABV, a political group founded by former Socialist President Georgi Parvanov.

Boyko Borisov again emerged as the clear winner, but in the immediate aftermath of the election it transpired that his was a pyrrhic victory. GERB fell short, with a significant margin, of being able to rule on its own. Borisov indicated he understood. He refused to give a press conference on election night, breaching the tradition of having all the political parties that enter a new parliament speak out. On the following day, while his closest associates did begin to speak out, he was seen wearing his football suit and jogging boots in the corridor. He was off sweating out. The man, obviously, felt hurt. Any coalition with the other parties would be extremely precarious if not impossible chiefly because one of the conditions most other parties insist on is not to have Boyko Borisov as prime minister again.

The 5 October election was a failure because it did not achieve what Bulgaria needed most: stability and a desire to reform everything from education and health care to the energy sector. But it was a failure, first and foremost, for Bulgaria's civil society: fewer people bothered to go to the ballots than they had done even the previous year.

Now, for the more general conclusion. Why are not Bulgarians interested in voting, provided voting in elections is the main way in a Western-style democracy to prompt change?

The answers to this question are, unfortunately, not very pleasant. They are to be sought in the peculiar Bulgarian "national character," modelled largely under Communism, in the mix of preconceived notions rammed home for generations, irrational thinking and sheer prejudice that have come to characterise the Bulgarians for many years and that, as a rule, are mutually exclusive.

Here are some of them. Bulgarians are rebels. They have always been, but they rebel at the tax office or while sitting in the Sofia traffic. They rebel at home, in front of the TV set while they drink their rakiyas and eat their shopskas. OK, in recent years, some of the more outspoken would sit in front of a computer and send out political statuses on Facebook. But the political system, unfortunately, cannot yet be changed through FB.

Bulgarians want rights and democracy. Yet, 25 years of democracy (in the sense of multiparty elections) has left a majority so disillusioned with the democratic process that they increasingly demand a strong hand, someone like Borisov, to show up and put things in order in a no-nonsense way. Internationally, this can be seen in the fact that Russia's Vladimir Putin is so popular in Bulgaria.

Bulgarians want change. They want better pay and better conditions, but they lament the closure of that huge Communist-era metallurgy plant that depended exclusively on Soviet ore to manufacture heavy machinery. No one needs heavy machinery any longer and the Soviet Union ceased to exist 25 years ago. And that plant was losing money in the first place...

Bulgarians want an end to corruption and nepotism. But they know that the moment they elect more than three people to rule them the same Behind-the-Scenes-ness will come.

Bulgarians are atheist, regardless of the amount of senior statesmen TV cameras show kissing the hands of Orthodox clergymen on high holidays, in the sense that they are confident they have their fates in their own hands. Yet, they are convinced that nothing depends on them. Not at the ballot boxes. There, everything has been predetermined behind the scenes. That's why they do not bother to show up at all. Instead, the enlightened younger Bulgarians show up at Sofia Airport equipped with one-way tickets to Europe.


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