by Anthony Georgieff

... Bulgarians set to get more of the same after general election scheduled for 4 April

boyko borisov.jpg

Some media try to represent the upcoming election as a titanic battle of a major anti-Communist, pro-democracy and pro-Western establishment (Boyko Borisov's GERB) and a renegade leftist party (BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party) that stems from the erstwhile Bulgarian Communist Party, the one that ruled Communist Bulgaria with an iron fist in 1944-1989. In fact, if opinion polls are anything to go by, GERB and BSP are almost equal in size, with the GERB sometimes emerging ahead by a few percentage points, and vice versa. Significantly, neither GERB nor the BSP are particularly large. Their hardcore voters amount to about 18-22 percent. This means neither of them will be able to form a government of their own, which is the case at the present time as well (Boyko Borisov relies on his extremist and ominously named NFSB, or National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, and VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, to be able to govern). Which in turn means that the next ruler of Bulgaria will be decided by what smaller parties manage to jump over the 4 percent threshold to enter the Bulgarian National Assembly. Obviously, the fewer voters turn up at the polling stations, the lesser chances the smaller, "untraditional" parties will have.

Who are they and what do they stand for?

The National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, led by Valeri Simeonov, who used to be a deputy prime minister under Borisov, garners its support on a simple theme. The Republic of Turkey, the historical heir to the Ottoman Empire (which ruled over the Bulgarian lands in the 14th-19th centuries and which ceased to exist in 1923), is Bulgaria's chief enemy. Turkish troops wait at the border for a good chance to invade and all Bulgarians must rise up to defend "traditional Bulgarian values" in the face of the onslaught of Islam. Simeonov gained notoriety in the mid-2010s when he built a barbed-wire fence along the Bulgarian border with Turkey which was represented as a major victory against illegal immigration. Notwithstanding the fact that a section of the fence collapsed during the first or second heavy rain, many Bulgarians – and the EU – generally approved.

The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation is led by Krasimir Karakachanov, the current defence minister. Karakachanov will probably go down in history as the man who successfully engineered the purchase of a few F-16 fighter jets from the United States in a bid to modernise the Bulgarian Air Force. His critics ridicule him over a state visit to Washington DC where he was seen descending from an airplane carrying an yellow-and-red plastic supermarket shopping bag in his hand. Was he bringing some rakiya and lukanka into his hotel room? The VMRO has two main demands ahead of the upcoming general election. It vows to oppose any legalisation of same-sex marriages (Bulgaria continues to be one of the few states in modern Europe where gay civil unions are illegal), and it vehemently condemns the Republic of North Macedonia over its "theft" of Bulgaria's history and language.

One of the sure newcomers to Bulgarian politics will be the party of Slavi Trifonov, a TV personality who used to moderate an evening show on a major TV station in 2000-2019. At first Trifonov's party was supposed to be called There Is No Such State, a difficult-to-translate misnomer reflecting the increasing frustration of many Bulgarians with what they see as a Bulgaria ridden with political, economic and social absurdities. However, the courts refused to register it under that name as they deemed it "derogatory." So, Slavi Trifonov opted for the less controversial There Is Such People, or ITN. ITN wants a total overhaul of this country's political system first and foremost by introducing a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all voting algorithm, and abolishing the current party subsidies handed out proportionately by the state. Both ideas are hugely popular in Bulgaria, and both have been severely criticised by some less radical actors. Supposedly, a winner-take-all system will automatically condemn all smaller parties to oblivion – not a very good idea in a country where liberal democracy has not yet matured. And second, any abolition of state subsidies will imply funding by wealthy entrepreneurs and corporations who will inevitably look at their bottomline rather than the public good. Slavi Trifonov will probably enter the next Bulgarian National Assembly, possibly with over 10 percent of the votes.

An equally if not more difficult-to-translate grouping emerged from the so-called Poison Trio, who spearheaded the central Sofia street protests against Boyko Borisov, in 2020. The Poison Trio consist of Nikolay Hadzhigenov, a human rights lawyer; Arman Babikyan, a publicist; and Professor Velislav Minekov, an artist. They will be joining forces with Maya Manolova, the former ombudsman, against the common evil, which they identify as this country's "gangster" rulers. The grouping is called Stand Up! Mutri Out! where mutri is the plural of mutra, the Bulgarian gangster who emerged in the 1990s and who sported a telltale ugly face. Stand Up! Mutri Out! identify Boyko Borisov as a mutra for his past, his methods, his uncouthness and his appearance. Stand Up! Mutri Out! does have a chance of entering the next Bulgarian parliament with a little over the threshold.

So does Democratic Bulgaria, an alliance between what remains of former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov's Democrats for Strong Bulgaria and Yes Bulgaria, a grouping led by Hristo Ivanov, who was a justice minister for Boyko Borisov in the 2010s. Democratic Bulgaria and especially Yes Bulgaria identify themselves as pro-Western intellectuals who are above-the-average in terms of education and intelligence: the "urban right wing" of Sofia and the bigger towns. Their agenda is not very different from Boyko Borisov's GERB except they claim they will do a better job than him by outperforming him in his pronounced anti-Communism, his pro-Western advances and his anti-Putin rhetoric. Yes Bulgaria consider themselves to be elitist to a point where they refuse to ally themselves with anyone whom they do not consider so well-educated an intelligent, "smart and beautiful." They are particularly indignant when reached at by anyone whom they consider to be insufficiently anti-Communist. Had Democratic Bulgaria partnered with, for instance, the Stand Up! Mutri Out! or even the BSP they would have stood a good chance of overturning Boyko Borisov's table. As they stand now, however, they may garner just enough votes to enter Bulgaria's next parliament.

One old newcomer to Bulgarian politics is Tsvetan Tsvetanov, Boyko Borisov's former righthand-man who parted with him in 2019 over revelations he had bought several top properties in Sofia at below-market-value prices. Tsvetanov founded his own political party called Republicans for Bulgaria, and even set up his own thinktank, prompting derision by critics who laugh that "Tsvetanov" and "thinktank" are as far apart as the night and day. Tsvetanov now criticises corruption and rights abuses as practiced by his former boss, again prompting ridicule from critics who propound he riles against a system he is to be held largely responsible for creating. As it were, Tsvetanov stands few chances of jumping over the election threshold for the next parliament, but he may attract some voters disillusioned by Boyko Borisov who will neither go to Democratic Bulgaria, nor – god forbid – to BSP.

In all likelihood the strings in Bulgarian politics after the 4 April general election will be pulled by the DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms. The predominantly Turkish DPS is a party everyone mentioned above likes to hate. None of the political players will even concede they will even talk with the DPS. The DPS, which was born on the ashes of the Communist-era repressions against Bulgaria's Muslim minority, has a solid voter base of about 10-12 percent. It will probably be the third or fourth largest party in the next General Assembly. None of the larger parties will be able to form any kind of credible government without the DPS's explicit or implicit endorsement.

One interesting development ahead of the general election was the announcement by President Rumen Radev that he will stand again this coming autumn. Radev, an Air Force general, has consistently outshone Borisov in terms of popular approval. A quiet, yet firm man, he has been an outspoken critic of Borisov's regime, inflicting upon himself the wrath of the GERB leader who apparently realises that the only person with any public standing in today's Bulgaria who can challenge his authoritarian methods is Gen Radev. The president has repeatedly called for unity of all desirous to modernise Bulgaria and rid it of GERB's endemic corruption. Sadly, his calls have so far fallen on deaf years especially where the "urban right wing" is concerned. Yet, his announcement had some impact on Bulgarian politics and made life more difficult for the current rulers.

The upcoming election will be dominated by fear: fear of the Covid-19 pandemic, fear of the economic consequences, fear of the vaccines, which many Bulgarians see as living proof of some conspiracy theory, fear of the future in general. Turnout is expected to be low, which will directly benefit GERB. It even encourages it. Associate Professor Angel Kunchev, Bulgaria's chief public health inspector, put it plainly: the "peak" of the "third wave" of Covid-19 is expected around the time of the general election. Consequently, whether too many Bulgarians will be too scared to go out into the voting booths is as good a guess as any.

Against this background it is difficult to predict who will enter the next Bulgarian National Assembly, who will ally with whom in it, and most importantly whether any alliance formed on ad hoc rather than ideological terms will hold out for more than several months. Any party that does gain parliamentary representation will certainly have to make many compromises with its election pledges and with its voters. The whole exercise in democracy increasingly looks like an old-fashioned game of musical chairs that will likely produce a few ripples on the surface but whose final result will be more of the same. 


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