Snap election produces uneasy, perhaps short-lived alliances
Some analysts were surprised, others were not: the 11 July snap election, called in the wake of the failure of Bulgaria's 45th National Assembly to set up a government, returned more or less the same results. Boyko Borisov's GERB continues to be a large and monolithic political party if led by an increasingly erratic strongman. It was pushed into the second place by a margin of less than a percent by Slavi Trifonov's ITN, or There Is Such a People, grouping. Third comes the beleaguered BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party. Further down the road are the DB, or Democratic Bulgaria alliance, followed closely by the Turkish-dominated DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms. The political entity born out of the 2020 anti-Boyko Borisov's street protests in Sofia that used to call itself Stand Up! Mafia Out! retains a small presence. The only major difference with the ill-fated 4 April election is that the voter turnout was significantly lower, by as much as 10 percent. To recap, the 46th National Assembly was elected into office by as few as 40 percent of all eligible Bulgarian voters. Whether a parliament elected by so few people will command legitimacy and stability in the future remains to be seen.
As it stands, the current political division in Bulgaria is no longer Communism versus democracy (which it used to be in the early 1990s), nor between a left wing and a right wing (the way it did in the early 2000s). It does not run along any ideological lines. It is between Us and Them. "Them" are the guys who obviously acted with impunity unseen since the times of Communism, getting lucrative state or EU contracts, cheating on funds and ensuring media comfort for themselves and their associates. "Us" is everyone else. "Them" is Boyko Borisov and his GERB. "Us" is everybody who has not partaken of his infamous handouts.
Similarly to the ill-fated 45th National Assembly, which will probably go down in Bulgarian history as the Short Parliament (it functioned less than a month), Boyko Borisov garnered over 20 percent of the vote. Yet, no one is willing to partner with him. He and his followers stand isolated and will not be even invited for talks. Apparently, the overwhelming majority of Bulgarians, regardless of their political views, opinions and inclinations, have become fed up with his despotic rule, his uncouth nativism, his threats and the sort of Balkan corruption and nepotism he so persistently nurtured while he was in power. Whether he will meet his comeuppance for all the alleged misdeeds while in office is as good a guess as any. If Bulgarian legal history in recent years is anything to go by, such a development is highly unlikely. Could he come back to power and take his vengeance in a possible snap election in the future? This is not very likely either for a number of reasons, the main one being he is no longer at the helm of the state, directing all its resources to sway elections in his favour. Bulgarians may well be seeing Boyko Borisov's downfall for good.
Who are the people and groupings who managed to topple the strongman who ruled ruthlessly for over 12 years?
This is where things become interesting and this is where, to use a slightly antiquated yet quite relevant commonplace, the dog may lay buried. And the best way to describe them would be with another slightly antiquated yet relevant adage: a motley crew.
First comes Slavi Trifonov's ITN grouping. Formed within a few months by one of the most famous entertainers in Bulgaria, There Is Such a People was initially called There Is No Such State, a difficult-to-translate Bulgarian saying which means something (the Bulgarian state) is so absurd (because nothing in it functions the way it should) that it cannot possibly exist (in real life), but still does. Slavi Trifonov failed to get There Is No Such State registered because the courts deemed the name offensive.
Initially, There Is Such a People had little in the way of a political agenda save for a few demands even novices in political science will immediately sport as blatantly populist. For one, Slavi wants to introduce a first-past-the-post ballot system of the US and British type. Bulgarians in huge numbers applaud (because they like the winner-takes-all idea), yet may wince the moment they realise that a first-past-the-post vote may work well in a state that has a dualistic democracy, but is likely to produce some very unpalatable results if more than two parties are involved. Secondly, he wants to cut party subsidies. At present, political parties that have garnered at least 1 percent of the vote are entitled to receive state budget subsidies of 8 leva per vote cast for them. Trifonov wants that reduced to 1 lev (0.50 euros). This is music to the ears of the overwhelming majority of Bulgarians who do not want to see their hard-earned cash go to the Monty Python-esque "circus" they increasingly view the Bulgarian parliament as. Whether covert economic interests will not immediately seize the opportunity to penetrate politics, a highly likely scenario in a country with only a few years of democratic tradition, is immaterial to the viewers of Slavi's Show.
The ITN grouping has other plans as well. It wants US-style election of local police bosses (in a country plagued by corruption of anyone from traffic cops to senior counterterrorism officials who get caught poaching wild boar in the mountains). They want to build as many kindergartens as possible. And also send a joint Bulgarian-North Macedonian mission into outer space.
The easy explanation who supports There Is Such a People is the men and women who have been glued to their TV sets for the past 20 years, since Slavi's Show has been running. These are the people who indulge in his chalga music, catchy if somewhat vulgar; and in his jokes, also catchy if somewhat vulgar. But there is more to Slavi's popularity than that. At the latest election his party was supported by many people who would never go to a chalga disco, but who saw in Slavi Trifonov, owing to his popularity, a plausible alternative: a tool with which to dismantle GERB and topple Borisov.
The third largest party in the 46th National Assembly is the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party. Its foes, including Boyko Borisov, will never miss the chance to remind that the BSP is the historical heir to the BKP, or Bulgarian Communist Party, which ruled this country with an iron fist in 1944-1989. Notwithstanding the homage it pays to the Communist past, which it does regularly, it must be noted that especially in recent years the BSP has changed itself beyond recognition. The party of "workers and peasants" that banned the free market and suppressed human rights under Communism is now more like a social democratic party of the type to be seen in many West European countries. Kornelia Ninova, its heavy-handed if not very magnetic leader, has managed to rid the party of Stalinist influences, and in many ways has embraced policies that from an outside viewpoint would be seen as decidedly "rightwing." The BSP at present is the only political entity that has a more or less coherent social agenda, a must in a country where the level of inequality surpasses that in the United States. Significantly, through the past four years the BSP was the only unfaltering opposition to Boyko Borisov's GERB simply because the ITN did not exist and because DB had failed to enter the National Assembly.
The BSP's standing is disputed from many corners, most vociferously by the rightwing Democratic Bulgaria. DB, an alliance of three small parties called Democrats for Strong Bulgaria, Yes Bulgaria! and Green Movement, are perhaps the most interesting beast in the political market of 2021.
Democrats for Strong Bulgaria, led by Gen Atanas Atanasov, a former security official, have their footing in the late 1990s when anti-Communist Prime Minister Ivan Kostov led the right wing of the rightwing SDS, or Union of Democratic Forces. Kostov fell from power at the 2001 election when Former Bulgarian King Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha returned from his 50-year post-Second World War exile in Spain, founded a political party, won a landslide election and became prime minister. Kostov and his followers will never forgive him, or anyone associated with him, for that.
Yes Bulgaria! was founded in the late 2010s by Hristo Ivanov, a lawyer who has never practiced the legal profession. Green Movement is Bulgaria's inchoate environmentalist party, which makes it probably the only "green" party in Europe to be a member of a right-wing alliance.
What unites Atanasov and Ivanov, apart from their vehement anti-Communist parlance, is their hatred of Boyko Borisov. Both have cooperated with him in the past, Atanasov as a coalition partner and Ivanov as Borisov's justice minister. But both fell out with him and are now have taken upon themselves to be the most outspoken opponents of their former chief.
DB is a party that needs an enemy to thrive. In the past it has been Communism and the BSP. Their wrath has since shifted to Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, whom they want removed from office. At present, their main foe is the DPS, whom Hristo Ivanov vilifies for all the corrupt practices that have plagued Bulgaria since 1990, including during the time when his own ideological fathers were in office.
At times, Hristo Ivanov's anti-DPS rhetoric dwarfs even the extreme nationalists of Ataka, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (all of these failed to enter the current parliament but comfortably supported Boyko Borisov for the past four years). In this way Ivanov may be attracting the votes of disgruntled nationalists, but his is a dangerous game. By completely rebuking the DPS and especially its honorary chairman, Ahmed Dogan, he in fact slams 11 percent of the Bulgarian voters, mainly ethnic Turks and Muslims, who invariably support the DPS. Using ethnicity as a political card anywhere, especially in the Balkans, is perilous.
Ivanov's "political school" was mainly the streets of central Sofia which, back in 2013, were paralysed for several months by protestors. At the end of the day what they achieved was to pave the way for Boyko Borisov's return to power. Hristo Ivanov 's followers cast themselves as being exclusive. They are the "urban right wing" and they are jubilant that at present they are the biggest party in Sofia and in the centre of Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest city. They have few or no followers in the smaller towns and in rural Bulgaria. They also advertise themselves as "smart and beautiful" in that they consider themselves to be better educated, speak foreign languages, have travelled abroad and so on. Boyko Borisov dismisses them as "Bolshevik." In this case he may have a point to make. The "smart and beautiful" are completely impervious to any criticism. They are prepared to go to great lengths to discredit anyone who dares to put in a word for them that they may consider not very congratulatory. Their methods evoke the everyone-who-is-not-a-friend-is-a-foe times of the Stalinist past. And they see real or imaginary enemies, usually hidden in what they call the "backstage" of Bulgarian politics, whom they want to destroy.
What Ivanov lacks in personal charisma he makes up for in almost Trotskyite revolutionary fervour. In actual fact, Ivanov's political agenda is not very different from that of Boyko Borisov except that he and his followers claim they will outperform Borisov in almost everything, from compliance with Western demands to implementing anti-Putin measures.
The DPS, the fifth party in the National Assembly, is a party everyone likes to hate but everyone turns to in case they need support in parliament. It suffered a heavy blow when one of its former MPs, Delyan Peevski, was named by the US Justice Department as being liable for sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, in June. That blow, however, was not felt at the ballot boxes in July when DPS supporters, both in Bulgaria proper and in Turkey, cast their votes for the party they see as genuinely protecting their ethnic and religious rights. Bulgaria is the country in the EU with the largest proportion of Muslims that are not immigrant, and the DPS has used that since its inauguration in 1990. Its hold on the "ethnic vote" remains unchallenged.
And then there is what some analysts see as the only truly "protest" party in the Bulgarian parliament, Stand Up! Mafia Out! Born in the streets of Sofia in 2020, when the city was again engulfed in massive protests against Boyko Borisov, Stand Up! Mafia Out! (or ISMV) renamed itself to the equally confusing Stand Up BG! We Are Coming! (IBGNI). At present, they are small but, as their name indicates, they hold both a promise and a threat (the good guys are coming, but also watch out - unless you do what we want you to do we will be coming for you).
As a matter of course, all of the above parties have media that they either control or at least have them on their side. Interestingly, the media on the two extreme tips of the pole (one favouring DB and Hristo Ivanov and trying to completely destroy Boyko Borisov and the other doing anything it can to help preserve him) are owned by two brothers.
It remains to be seen to what extent the parties in the very colourful 46th National Assembly will be able to reconcile their differences and fulfil what their voters want from them: no more elections. In the wake of Boyko Borisov's rule, however, things will probably get worse before they start getting any better, and Bulgarians may well yet again have to go to the ballots in the autumn, possibly around the time of the scheduled election for president.