DARK CLOUD WITH TINY SILVER LINING

by Anthony Georgieff

EU elections generate domestic acrimony, further instability

None of the Bulgarian parties standing in the EU elections in May, except Ataka – which said it was opposed to "Euro perversions," meaning same-sex partnership rights – had any stand on any of the major issues Europe is faced with. No political party in Bulgaria was even remotely concerned about unemployment, climate change, the fate of the euro, immigration (as opposed to asylum-seeking) and all that. Going to the ballots in May was a purely domestic affair. The 25 May event in Bulgaria was played out primarily as a litmus test for the popularity of those in power at the moment.

Some Bulgarians thought that the anti-government street rallies that had gone on for several months the previous year would have convinced a larger number of citizens that going to the ballots was the only way in a democracy to make a real change to the way this country was run. They were wrong. Just 35 percent of the Bulgarian voters bothered to turn out and cast their ballots on election day.

The parties they elected show a disturbing picture of a Bulgaria that is increasingly at unease with itself and its elected representatives, and that is still run not by able policymakers that spawn meaningful action to address the country's many problems but by a bunch of people who use TV screens and street billboards to convince voters that they stand for things that are at closer inspection exactly the opposite of what they are claimed to be.

As the election results rolled in, those supportive of GERB, the political organisation run by former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, rejoiced. GERB garnered 30.4 percent of the vote, compared to 19 percent for the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, its avowed arch-enemy and at present the senior partner in the ruling coalition. Had this been a general rather than an EU election, GERB would have emerged as the largest party in parliament – if you go strictly by the numbers. Because Bulgarians sometimes like to go strictly by the numbers without analysing the background against which these numbers emerge, the GERB leadership was quick to proclaim itself the big winner.

In fact, nothing can be further from the truth. If this had been a general election, the 30.4 percent GERB cashed in would not have enabled it to form a government of its own. It would not have been able to come to power at all as its main opponents, the BSP and the DPS, would still command the majority in the Bulgarian parliament. Even with these 30.4 percent, GERB would have firmly remained on the sidelines – in "unconstructive opposition," doing nothing to influence the course of Bulgaria's development except standoffishly demanding votes of no-confidence and calling for snap elections.

The case of GERB is interesting because no other party in Bulgaria's quarter of a century of parliamentary democracy has been so able to manipulate public opinion to represent itself as something it is not. GERB says it is a rightwing, pro-Western party that embraces the values of democracy, conducts sound economic policies, respects human rights, encourages free media, and builds asphalt roads.

In actual fact, it is none of these. It is not rightwing, at least not in the Western sense of the word, because instead of encouraging free enterprise and entrepreneurship, while it was in power, it boosted the significance and wealth of a few hand-picked "businessmen" with a close relationship to its leadership, did everything it could to stifle competition and rendered Bulgaria's inchoate market economy unable to overcome the severe economic crisis that GERB itself did nothing to handle. GERB can hardly be billed "pro-Western" either. While it is true that its lieutenants, epitomised mainly by former Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov who is currently on trial for embezzlement and abuse of power and has already been convicted in one of the cases, gladly offered police cooperation to the West, domestically they did nothing but amalgamate organised crime with the state. The recap of GERB's rule is sorry. If international research is anything to go by, Bulgaria is now rock-bottom of the EU in terms of income levels, freedom of speech, journalism independence and so on and so forth.

The big winner, if there was one, is the Turk-dominated DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which won 17 percent. It added to its popularity, which is now almost the same as that of the BSP. It shows no signs of weaknesses and though it is persistently vilified by contestants as being a syndicate of corporations rather than a political party, it is likely to remain firmly in power – or at least as a power broker – for many years to come.

Another "big winner" is, obviously, the curiously named Bulgaria Without Censorship grouping led by Nikolay Barekov, a former journalist and erstwhile pal of Boyko Borisov. Barekov emerged straight out of his TV studio and successfully ran an election campaign. His promises varied from reintroducing the military draft to reinstating the Communist-era name of the country, People's Republic of Bulgaria. He garnered 10.69 percent of the vote.

Against this background – and owing to GERB's renewed calls for the incumbent government to resign and an early general election to be called – more political instability is in the offing. While in opposition, GERB has made clear its reluctance to do anything constructive in the political process. However, none of these seems likely. This means continuing and perhaps increasing tensions and further division lines in Bulgarian society.

The only piece of good news from the EU elections was that parties like aforementioned Ataka and other extremist organisations with pronounced xenophobic, anti-Semitic and nationalist agendas failed to break the election threshold. Ataka took only 3 percent, and so did the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria. This means that if there was a general election now, none of them would have been able to enter the Bulgarian parliament.

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