Yet another Bulgarian snap election results in yet another Bulgarian stalemate
Despite the massive and apparently rather expensive advertising campaign, which involved TV, print, outdoor and plenty of Facebook, the Changes Continued-Democratic Bulgaria (CC-DB) alliance lost the 2 April election. Many voters, especially younger ones with good, Western-style education, supported the CC because they saw in them a relatively untarnished leadership that appeared to genuinely want to turn Bulgaria into what it said would be a "prosperous European country." Ahead of the election the CC joined forces with the DB, itself an alliance of several small parties that are supported almost religiously by individuals identifying themselves as "urban rightwing, pro-Western intellectuals." Or so their soothsayers purport.
The reasons for the CC-DB failure are many and complex, but they come down to two things, and the CC is responsible for both. To start off with, Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev's short-lived rule in 2022 was far from cloudless. While the pair coped successfully with many domestic and international challenges – the ongoing war in Ukraine, Bulgaria's diversification of energy supplies and so on and so forth – what remained as an aftertaste in their voters' mouths were the obvious faux pas. The general public may have forgotten some of CC's most preposterous overtures – one example being the appointment of Atanas "Simply Nasko" Atanasov for culture minister – but those who bothered to go to the ballots on 2 April hadn't.
However, the much more important reason for the CC's underperformance was the fact that they... did join forces with the DB. How come? Does not unity mean everything in politics?
In the warped world of Bulgarian social life post-1989 few things are what they seem to be. Consequently, in politics 2 plus 3 does not necessarily equal 5. What largely explains the CC's sudden emergence as a major political player, in late 2021, was precisely that it stood alone, unimpeded by the hypocritical rhetoric, unprincipled alignments and constant delving into the Communist past the DB prides itself on. Fearing it might drop out of politics altogether, the DB at the time made a number of advances to the CC, but Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev were adamant in their refusal. They did yield ahead of the 2 April 2023 election, and now the result is open for everyone to see.
If arithmetics are anything to go by – and in a democracy they very often are – Boyko Borisov's GERB won. With almost 2 percent ahead of the main contender, the CC-DB, Borisov is the largest party in the 49th National Assembly. But just like last time, Borisov did not garner enough votes to be able to form a government on his own.
For his part Borisov was quick to "extend a hand" to anyone who would be willing to take it. But his opponents saw in this nothing but pure Borisov-style demagoguery. The CC-DB were quick to reject Borisov's approaches. Initially, they said such an attempt was designed to legitimise Borisov once again, and absolve him, at least publicly, of the many alleged crimes he reportedly committed while he was in power in 2009-2021. Then they started talking with the GERB about "legislative priorities." It remains to be seen whether the disgusted will embrace the disgusting on "geopolitical orientation" and "civilisational choices," the two main mantras of the DB.
So, enter Vazrazhdane, the extremist party of Kostadin Kostadinov. The carefully named Revival, to evoke the 19th century Revival Period when the modern Bulgarian nation was being formed, is an anti-establishment party. Its leader espouses radical and extremist ideas. Hе rejects Bulgaria's projected joining the Eurozone and Schengen. Instead – like every populist leader before and after him, he demands referenda. He wants Bulgaria out of NATO and the limited number of US troops currently inside the country out. He openly supports Putin and his war in Ukraine. He wants to line up all pro-Western intellectuals as well as all "foreign agents" working in Western-sponsored non-governmental organisations and send them to labour camps. Very obviously, his rhetoric disgusts many Bulgarians. But it attracts many others as well. In the 2 April election Kostadinov's grouping emerged as the third largest political power – ahead of the Turkish-dominated DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and of the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party. Kostadin Kostadinov will be someone everyone else will have to reckon with in the foreseeable future.
Yet, the main question regarding Kostadinov and his Revival is whether the man should be taken seriously. Will his bite turn out to be worse than his bark? In what way is he different from his ideological predecessors, Volen Siderov of Ataka and Valeri Simeonov (a former deputy prime minister for Boyko Borisov) and his own extremist National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria?
Though Kostadinov is currently being used as a scarecrow, the simple fact is that he is neither particularly novel nor particularly powerful. When Volen Siderov emerged onto the political scene in 2005 he garnered more votes than Kostadinov now, but because the turnout was higher Siderov ended up with fewer MPs in parliament. Pollsters and political scientists estimate the extremist vote in Bulgaria – no matter whether rightwing, leftwing or nationalist – is insufficient to cause any serious turbulence. This is in sharp contrast to the predictions of some analysts that Bulgaria now resembles Weimar Germany in the 1920s and that it is only a matter of time till a domestic Hitler wins an election. In fact, it is in sharp contrast to the situation in many established democracies in Western Europe, including Italy (Prime Minister Georgia Meloni), France (Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen), The Netherlands (Geert Wilders) and so on.
Oddly, that latter supposition has been enhanced by a new group of "intellectuals" who perused the option of an "open letter" to demand of all political parties considering themselves "pro-European" an immediate "levelling" of differences and a quick formation of a new government to protect Bulgaria from Communism, Putin and the caretaker governments of Bulgarian President Rumen Radev. Such a new hypothetical government, the intellectuals insist, should further integrate Bulgaria in NATO, facilitate its acceptance in the Eurozone and Schengen and assist Ukraine, and when this happens Kostadin Kostadinov will be consigned to the dustbin of history.
But the DB, the party that advertises itself as consisting exclusively of pro-European and pro-Western intellectuals, was quick to slam the open letter as yet another sleight-of-hand. It would suit only Boyko Borisov, they claimed. If he becomes prime minister once more he will avoid just punishment for his alleged misdeeds.
Anybody having the benefit of being able to observe the Bulgarian political scene from the outside may not be familiar with – and will certainly fail to perceive – the fine details and the day-to-day fights and animosities. But precisely because of that they may be able to see the bigger picture. There are few, if any, ideological differences between GERB and DB. The main bone of discontent is that DB, which has been out of power for over 10 years, claims it can do things better than Boyko Borisov. Significantly, it claims it is a lot more "moral" than Boyko Borisov, as well as everyone else left, right and centre. It is so moral that it naturally has the right to pass moral judgments on anyone who disagrees with it and is therefore not sufficiently moral.
Sceptics, however, say the DB just wants a piece of the cake that Borisov kept all to himself. The fight will continue for as long as Borisov either steps down or is removed from power. The CC, for all intents and purposes, just got caught in the crossfire.
And so did the "intellectuals" now writing open letters to demand the "pro-European, pro-democracy" powers to join forces in the fight against Communism and Putin.