text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Key takeaways from local elections 2023


Polling agencies got it wrong again

If the multitude of opinion polls were to be trusted, the election results would have been very different. The PP-DB (Changes Continued-Democratic Bulgaria), which currently runs the country through its coalition government with Boyko Borisov's GERB (which it insists is not a coalition but a "fixture") should have won Sofia hands down. It should have done a lot better in most bigger towns and cities as well.

The actual results turned out to be very different from the various forecasts and predictions.

Polling agencies in Bulgaria are rarely what polling agency in the West are. Usually, pollsters in this country work with a "stable" customer, a patron – be it a political party, an NGO or a media. For the right amount of cash pollsters would be happy to produce polls on anything from traffic planning to the need to preserve the commission to declassify the files of the Communist-era State Security (a key element in DB-DSB's lecture about the perceived dangers of getting pre-1989 hardline Communism resurrected in the Bulgaria of 2023).

Communism vs Anti-Communism commonplaces are very much alive

Speaking of the Communist-era State Security (which was disbanded in 1990), its perceived penetration of life in post-Communist Bulgaria and its continued influence in public and business affairs the DB-DSB have narrated to their public for years, they couldn't have done worse in 2023. While they have propagated "lustration" and "cleansing" of anyone with the remotest real or imaginary association with State Security to be banned from public life for good and sentenced to eternal damnation, their candidate for the Sofia mayoralty was a relatively young millionaire with... both feet in the State Security business. While the above mentioned government declassification commission had no papers on Vasil Terziev's personal involvement with the secret services (because he was too young at the time they existed), his family (his grandfather, his father and his mother) were deeply involved – in senior positions. A former journalist even produced a treatise that Terziev's first million was made with the active assistance of State Security.

Other diehard anti-Communists were quick to respond. Vili Lilkov, a Sofia city councillor for GERB, stood for the mayoralty solely on his anti-State Security stance.

Predictably, everyone quickly got entangled in the pro- or anti-Communist past diatribes. The DB-DSB, now joined by the PP, resorted to what they know best. They put into circulation their never-ending adages about "geopolitical orientation," "civilisational choices" and the Red Army monument in Sofia while brushing aside the really pressing issues of the day. These include, but are by far and wide not limited to, the rubbish collection, the refusal of Sofia City Council to build underground or multi-storey car parks, the sorry state of the pedestrian sidewalks, the abandoned ropeways up the Vitosha mountains (once the pride of the capital), the infestation of rats and pigeons, and so on and so forth.

The conclusion? The beautiful-or-awful Communist past continues to be a major political force in Bulgaria, even several generations after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact and Comecon. It is being picked up even by young people who have no personal experience of what life was like this side of the former Iron Curtain. It is likely to be exploited as a political tool for yet more generations to come. This is one of the reasons why the Red Army monument is unlikely to be knocked down any time soon.

Emergence of a new left

At least in Sofia, the only candidate who did not jump on the Communist/anti-Communist bandwagon was Vanya Grigorova, a trade unionist whose candidature was put forward by the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party. Grigorova, whom the PP-DB-DSB followers immediately condemned as being pro-Putin, a "diehard Communist," a puppet for President Rumen Radev and a Gypsy, spoke for the Man in the White Van. She addressed quietly but coherently the problems faced by the citizens of Sofia, and did not succumb to the geopolitical orientation gobbledygook.

As Grigorova was put forward by the BSP, which is not only on the wrong side of history but is also encumbered with a chronically inadequate leadership, few believed she would do any good. Yet, she had no trouble winning over Boyko Borisov's personal nominee. And in the runoff Grigorova, who started her life as a school cleaner and fastfood restaurant employee, almost won the mayoralty against millionaire Vasil Terziev. In actual fact, Terziev won with less than 5,000 votes – in a city of a million and a half.

The takeaway from this is that sooner or later – sooner rather than later – the citizens of Sofia and probably some of the bigger cities will come to the realisation that geopolitical issues (the war in Ukraine etc) are not – and should not be – at the pith of local elections debates. Local elections are supposed to produce leaders who will handle the rubbish collection and make the ropeways run again. Inevitably, this realisation will lead to some interesting political developments that will have nothing to do with computer nerds making millions of dollars in the ruthless market economy but will concern for example the people with disabilities, whom the ruthless market economy health care "reforms" have deprived of proper living conditions.

Local politicians in Sofia fought over the fate of... a pile of stones rather than about the pressing issues of the day

Low turnout spells lost faith in democracy

With the exception of the heady days of the early 1990s, when Bulgaria was in a state of animated elevation as it thought it would quickly catch up with the West, the concept of Western liberal democracy has not been very popular, probably because Bulgaria, unlike other East European nations, had not really experienced it in the 20th century. In 2023, it is at an all-time low. Anything that smacks of collective decisionmaking is viewed with suspicion by the majority of Bulgarians who think nothing depends on them and their votes.

The 2023 local elections were just another piece of evidence for this. Turnout nationally was less than 38 percent (compare to the over 80 percent usually seen in the developed democracies in Europe). Bulgarians will likely continue to vote with their feet unless they see – and believe in – someone who will address their real problems honestly and competently. The rest, they think, are just a bunch of crooks out there to steal.

PP-DB-DSB hypocrisy

In more than one way the 2023 local elections exposed what many – even some of the religious supporters of the DB-DSB, now joined by the PP – have suspected. The PP-DB-DSB act on the spur of the moment. Their only aim is to get to the power and stay there, regardless of the methods used and of the (unholy) alliances joined. Hristo Ivanov, a former justice minister for Boyko Borisov who was dismissed as he failed to implement credible judicial reforms, founded his Yes Bulgaria party in 2017. Since then it has demanded the abolition of what it calls Bulgaria's model of corruption as epitomised by Boyko Borisov's GERB and the Turkish DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms.

At present, the DB-DSB are in power in a coalition with Boyko Borisov. The future of their "fixture" depends on him. Delyan Peevski, a millionaire whom the DB-DSB have vilified as the father of all latterday corruption in this country, has joined their effort at amending the Bulgarian Constitution...

When the DANS, Bulgaria's version of the American FBI, expelled a Russian priest out of the country on allegations of espionage, the PP-DB-DSB government applauded. Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov defended DANS's decision not to reveal any details as being "professional." When DANS ordered a reversal of the voting procedure two days ahead of the first round of the local elections on the basis of a DANS report claiming tampering with the ballot-box gadgets, the PP-DB-DSB were infuriated. Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov demanded the resignation of the DANS chief...

Examples of the PP-DB-DSB double standards like the above are too many to enumerate in a magazine article. The conclusion is that even some of their most conscientious supporters have started having doubts about the declared principles and aims of Hristo Ivanov, General Atanas Atanasov, Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev.

Sofia's new mayor's family is just a piece in the jigsaw.

GERB is not dead yet

In spite of the outcome of the local elections in Sofia, GERB performed solidly elsewhere, especially in the smaller towns. Even in Sofia, Boyko Borisov has a formidable presence in the City Council, which has to endorse whatever decisions the non-GERB mayor may make. At least in words, the PP-DB-DSB may have been a challenge to the behemoth, but it is still very much alive and kicking. The country will probably be seeing more of the same for the next four years – as long as the government "fixture" remains in place.

The Vazrazhdane flop

The extremist pro-Russian party of Kostadin "Kostya Kopeykin" Kostadinov served its purpose. All other actors vituperated it as being pro-Russian, anti-European, unconstitutional and so on and so forth. Activists started petitions to get it legally banned. Vazrazhdane, which means Revival in Bulgarian, was represented by the media as a scarecrow to frighten off anyone who thought of going astray from the mainstream.

If the results of the 2023 local elections are anything to go by, Kostadin Kostadinov tried to punch much above his weight, but failed spectacularly. His Vazrazhdane, which was the third largest Bulgarian political party after the April 2023 general election, has now plummeted. It will have some councillors in some villages and small towns, but that's about it. The grand breakthrough Kostadinov had ranted about failed to materialise.

Kostadinov tried to model his party on similar groupings in Bulgaria (Volen Siderov's Ataka and Valeri Simeonov's National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria). His role models in Europe were Germany's Alternative für Deutschland and France's Rassemblement National. Bulgaria as a nation may be very different from Germany and France in public attitudes, religion, cultural standards and of course income levels, but in some ways it is very similar. Like Germany and France, the Bulgarian society has an acceptable penetration threshold. Extremist groupings can snatch up to 15-18 percent of the vote, then they start to wane. Kostadin Kostadinov started on his downward journey with the 2023 local elections. Which of course does not mean that Kostadinov or similar will not reemerge and claim their up to 15-18 percent once the government "fixture" is gone.


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