Bulgaria may simmer in Borisov's long shadow for years to come
While he was in his heyday, Bulgaria's prime minister, Boyko Borisov, used to deride learned men and women by calling them "the guys wearing spectacles." Notoriously, he used to boast that in his lifetime he had read only one book, a Western story entitled Winnetou and written by a 19th century German writer, Karl May. He also used to woo workers protesting over their unpaid wages by assuring them that they were "simple folk" and because he himself was a "simple man" they would get together well. Ahead of the 6-13 November presidential ballot, somebody in his staff, which did include some bespectacled men and women, should have told him that Winnetou could make him endearing to a chunk of the Bulgarian voters but in order to succeed in long-term politics he should have known better. Had he read other books as well, it might have dawned on him that he could have fooled some of the people all of the time, he could have fooled all of the people some of the time, but he could not have gone on fooling all of the people all of the time.
Bulgaria's voters were quite unequivocal in their condemnation of Boyko Borisov's policies and of him personally: Tsetska Tsacheva, his candidate for president, lost spectacularly to a heretofore unknown Air Force general, Rumen Radev. Her nomination was so inadequate and she was generally seen as being so odious that even diehard GERB supporters cast their ballots for the military pilot rather than for their chief's handpicked nominee.
Whether the president can exert a real sway on Bulgarian politics, bearing in mind his limited Constitutional powers, is of course an important question, but it was rather beside the point in this election. The real stake was Boyko Borisov's ego, which suffered a bad blow. As everyone who has followed the Bulgarian outgoing prime minister's amateur career in football knows, Boyko Borisov is a bad loser. He responded to his defeat the way he usually does: by resorting to threats and blackmail. Between the first and second round of the ballot Borisov and his apparatchiks produced a thesaurus of real and imaginary threats ranging from the projected termination of EU-funded housing improvement programmes to the broadbrush apocalypse that Bulgaria would again became a Russian province – unless Tsetska Tsacheva became president.
The Bulgarian voters wouldn't listen, however. So, Borisov resigned, hurling the country into yet another political crisis likely to end in a snap election, possibly to be held next spring.
Analysts and commentators affiliated as they are with the various political parties and groupings were quick to produce a plethora of at times contradicting explanations of why Borisov was humiliated in such a landslide defeat. There are a few objective things, however, that not even GERB's most outspoken supporters can deny.
One is that Bulgaria is in fact a worse place than it was when Borisov came as prime minister in 2008. It remains the EU's poorest member state. Younger Bulgarians vote with their feet.
Emigration to Western Europe and elsewhere, which many dub a brain drain, continues unabated. Under Borisov, press freedoms have plummeted to the rock bottom within the EU. Even the things that a self-declared rightwing government was supposed to do, such as ensuring business had opportunities to develop, have been a spectacular failure. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Development Institute, Bulgaria now ranks 82nd in terms of business climate. In 2015 it was 46th, and in 2014 it was 44th. The Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry adds that opportunities and the general situation has deteriorated for every second private company in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian business community rejects almost all of the "innovations" brought about by GERB, including the pension and health care "reforms," the various new taxes such as the "unhealthy foods tax" and the "weekend tax," and so on and so forth. Foreign investment has plummeted by 33 percent on 2015, which was at the time seen as record low. According to the World Economic Forum, Bulgaria is 118th of the 138 surveyed in terms of fighting organised crime, 115th in defending property rights, 110th in terms of independence of the judiciary and 93th in terms of public spending efficiency.
There was one big winner during Borisov's rule, however: crony capitalism. All major public works, mainly in infrastructure – such as building motorways and expanding Sofia's underground railway system, went to the "right" companies. Notably, many of those contracts are heavily subsidised with EU money, meaning taxpayers in Germany, Denmark and Britain were paying for Bulgaria's internal projects. Ivo Prokopiev, the publisher of the Kapital weekly newspaper, summed it up: Bulgarias now live at 2007 standards. Boyko Borisov's loudly proclaimed "stability" has in fact been a stalemate.
Notwithstanding the significance of all its failures in the economy, GERB's rule's long-term political impact will probably be the hardest to overcome. Under Borisov, political life was reduced to bare essentials with GERB controlling most of the media and most public life in general, especially in the smaller towns outside Sofia where GERB functionaries were given all the important jobs. The small political groupings identifying themselves as rightwing democrats were quick to ally themselves with GERB, thus losing their identity and cheating on their voters many of whom had supported them only because they had promised they would never become pals with Borisov.
The general sentiment in Bulgaria ahead of the winter of 2016-2017 is one of doom and gloom: a deadend. Boyko Borisov is a Balkan version of Hungary's Orban, minus the cunning and the intelligence. The political bottomline of his rule will probably be the entrenchment of populist nationalism.
The West also has a brunt to bear in this. By refusing to take Boyko Borisov seriously it only enhanced the feeling of many Bulgarians that their "traditional" interests were with Russia rather than with Europe. Borisov's chief virtue from a Western point of view used to be that he sometimes made pro-Western remarks while he was in power. The last couple of years of his rule, however, saw a volte face. He tried to funnel pro-Russian sentiments by bemoaning the West's sanctions against Russia, failing to explain that it was in fact Putin's response against the West that hurt Bulgaria. He spoke openly against some NATO manoeuvres in the Black Sea, accusing his former protege, Bulgaria's outgoing President Rosen Plevneliev, of trying to "wage a war" with Russia.
What will the near future bring?
Sadly, the early general election that is on the horizon will probably make things even worse. Concurrently with the presidential ballot, Bulgarian voters cast their votes in a referendum prompted by Slavi Trifonov, a TV showman, which included a question on the changing of the Bulgarian electoral system from the proportional to the first-past-the-post winner-takes-all ballot. The referendum was not legally binding, owing to the low turnout. Overwhelmingly, those who did cast their ballots voted in favour.
Borisov quickly seized the populist chance to capitalise, and proclaimed that he would support the outcome. He was promptly joined by his declared arch foe, the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party. Of course, no one has so far explained that by taking on the volition of the 2,509,340 people who supported the introduction of the first-past-the-post voting system Borisov and the other populists would in fact deal a blow to the majority of Bulgarians who did not, or did not go to the polls at all.
If the electoral system does get changed by the outgoing parliament, the next general election in Bulgaria will see only three or four parties being able to jump over the threshold, including Borisov's GERB, the BSP and the extreme nationalists with whom Borisov ruled during his second term in office. Bulgaria's fragile democracy will be gone and done away with.