NO VOTE, NO WOE

by Anthony Georgieff

Presidential election looms on horizon, yet there is no one standing

Less than a couple of months ahead of the presidential election scheduled for 6 November, the ruling GERB refuses to disclose who its nominees are for fear they might be put under pressure by uncompliant journalists and get asked the wrong set of questions. Read this again. You've got it right.

About a quarter century after Bulgarians won for themselves the right to hold multi-party elections the current rulers in Sofia increasingly see them as nuisance at best. Tsvetan Tsvetanov, Boyko Borisov's former interior minister who incurred half a dozen rulings against Bulgaria at the International Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, is now, as he has been in the past, the manager of GERB's election campaign. Speaking to the media Tsvetanov said a month ahead of election day was "enough" to let voters make up their minds.

For their part, the voters are increasingly not interested. They tend to vote with their feet – just over 50 percent show up at the ballot boxes because they no longer believe they can change anything. According to GERB, this is called "stability." Bulgarians call it disgust.

The office of the Bulgarian president in itself is a bit of an anachronism. The president has only limited powers, mainly concerning vetoing bills. At the same time, he is elected on a first-past-the-post basis, unlike the Bulgarian parliament. In other countries with a similar system the president usually has a lot more far-reaching powers.

During the years they've been in power, the GERB have created such a foolproof system of dependencies and interdependencies, capitalising on the Bulgarians' unswerving belief that as a citizen you can only get along by going along, that their nominees are certain to win – whoever they are. When the outgoing President Rosen Plevneliev was elected in 2011, his former boss, Boyko Borisov, put it succinctly: "Whoever I had put up would have won."

With the exception of the extreme nationalists, the Patriotic Front and the VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, who are coalition partners to the GERB in the current government, no one else has dared put forward a candidate for president.

Do Bulgarians really think elections are a waste of time as nothing depends on them?

The main political players have done little if anything to disabuse the voters. There is hardly any political debate in this country any longer, certainly not one that focuses on issues like taxation, health care, judiciary reforms, making life easier for small- and medium-sized businesses and so on and so forth. Instead, during the past few years the main bone of contention for Bulgarians is where their country should stand – West, in NATO and the EU, or East, next to Putin's Russia. Extreme nationalism plays a vital role in this as the new "patriots" would slam as a "traitor" anyone who refuses to take in their rant. Their main points? That Bulgaria was once subservient to the Soviet Union but is now being ravaged by the West. That the mainstream politicians kowtow to the United States. That, unless radical action is taken, Bulgaria's Orthodoxy, closely related to the Russian Church, will succumb to Islam. A new slavery is in the offing. Leading public figures of various shades and hues, including some holding academic degrees, gladly intone.

So does the GERB. With a series of moves related to both Russia and Turkey, the prime minister, whose chief virtue heretofore was that he sometimes appeared to be pro-Western, has now began to manifest internationally the sort of unpredictability Bulgarians have come to know very well domestically. His latest advances to Turkey's Erdogan are unlikely to have an impact in Europe, but they have a powerful media effect in Bulgaria, not least among this country's sizeable Turkish minority.

The situation is further compounded by the ongoing hybrid warfare masterminded and implemented by the agencies of the Russian state. The West has only recently begun to realise how serious and detrimental the constant spreading of inaccurate information, conspiracy theories and outright lies can be – and only when Russian-controlled or paid-for media started disseminating their "news" to countries such as the UK and Sweden. It would be helpful to bear in mind that Bulgaria, with its very short history of democracy, lack of checks and balances and a heavily compromised media environment is a much more easy victim than, say, Belgium.

Throw in some nasty Muslim migrants who violate Bulgaria's borders and want usurp Bulgaria's traditional values and rape Bulgarian women, let out the vigilante bands roaming the barbed-wire fenced frontiers, and you end up with a situation reminiscent of Bosnia in 1991.

Of course, this is not Bosnia in 1991. Theoretically, the EU has learned its lessons from the 1990s. But the EU is much too preoccupied with its own troubles – terrorism in France, the economy in Greece, and now the Brexit. It is unlikely to take anything that happens in Bulgaria particularly seriously.

The Bulgarian election was timed, perhaps cunningly, to coincide with the US presidential election as people are more likely to take an interest in how Donald Trump, rather than Yordanka Fandakova, fares. With a lack of any meaningful debate ahead of the ballot, they probably will.

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