Playing it safe when losing is a bad strategy. Yet this is precisely what Bulgarian voters did in the 2017 Bulgarian elections. 32,65% of Bulgarians voted for Boyko Borisov’s party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), giving it a comfortable lead ahead of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) with 27, 20% of the vote. The United Patriots coalition came third with 9,7%, which is a good result but still lower than their own expectations and very close to the 8,99% of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS). The fifth party in parliament is “Will” (“Volya”), led by the shady Varna businessman Veselin Mareshki with a platform based on promises for cheaper petrol and medicines. The big losers in the elections are the three party splinters of the right-wing Reformers’ Block neither of which could cross the 4% threshold.
Nothing new on the Bulgarian Front?
The news is that there is no news. All the narratives from elections across the EU this year seem inadequate and a bit artificial in the Bulgarian context, which is stable and stubborn in its own peculiarity. Could we really label the underperformance of the United Patriots as a triumph of liberalism? Not really, as in Bulgaria there has been a nationalist consensus cutting across all parties from the left and the right. Could we see in the election result another evidence of the demise of social democratic parties, similar to what was observed in the Netherlands? No, as the BSP (which shares many of the fallacies of social democratic parties across Europe) almost doubled their votes since the last parliamentary elections. Could we speak of a triumph of the pro-European right over the Pro-Russian left? No, because Borisov’s GERB has allowed Russian interests to penetrate deeply into the Bulgarian economy and at the same time, BSP, despite being strongly Russia-friendly and questioning some aspects of the EU, is a pro-EU party. Formulaic explanations and ready-made ideological short-cuts can’t help us understand the results of the Bulgarian elections.
One of the interesting trends in the elections has been the multiplication of divisions between similar players: split in the “left” with BSP competing with the coalition of splinter movements ABV/Movement 21, the Reformers’ Block splitting in three right-wing democratic parties, even the so-called “Turkish vote” (the vote of ethnically Turkish Bulgarians some of whom were expelled to Turkey by the communist regime in the late 1980s) being split unequally between the more pro-Russia DPS and the pro-Turkey pro-Erdogan DOST. Secondly, there has been no substantial change in the political status quo since 2009. At every election since then, GERB has been first and BSP second, and at every election a new populist party has entered parliament: “Order, Legality, Justice“(2009), “Bulgaria Without Censorship” (2013), and now Mareshki’s “Will” (2017). What is common among all these small upcoming parties is that they did not cover new space on the ideological spectrum, representing people who had not felt represented before. On the contrary, all these parties, supported by powerful businessmen, gathered protest anti-systemic vote and offered programmes rather similar to the programme of GERB. It is almost as if they were all different editions of the same original print, becoming paler and paler with each reprint.
The reality of negligible differences and the neoliberal monotony of political ideas cutting across left and right wing parties have been aptly described by Jana Tsoneva as “politics after politics”. Whether it comes to building a wall against migrants on the border with Turkey, the privatization of public services such as health care or education, or the restriction of welfare only to the employed and educated, most political parties in Bulgaria agree with each other. So the big question is: if these elections were not about ideological differences or major disagreements about the path of the country, what was at stake for the different parties and for the voters? My answer is simple: despite the rhetoric of change, these elections were dominated by the very pragmatic logic of survival and preserving existing positions and possessions.
Elections or how to preserve the status quo
The first election of Boyko Borisov in 2009 could be interpreted to a large extent as a reaction against the corrupt governance of the Triple Coalition, formed in order to have a stable government for the 2007 accession to the EU and consisting of BSP, the Movement of Rights and Freedoms, and NDSV, informally called the “Tsar’s Party”. A key moment of the 2009 electoral campaign was the scandal caused by a leaked recording of the leader of DPS Ahmed Dogan who claimed that deputies didn’t have power, while he was the one who “rationed the portions” and distributed European money in circles of firms. However, it was not only the protest factor that led to Borisov’s election. In 2009, the General still had the charm of a man’s man, former bodyguard of the communist dictator, fireman, karate master, tennis and football sportsman, who could even play the piano. Borisov never had an ideology but he had charisma and a natural gift for politics: the perfect popular leader.
The governance of GERB was marked by the economic crisis in Bulgaria, which led to a substantial decline in economic activity. By coincidence, this was also the period of strong inflow of EU structural funds after the accession. The combined effect of these two factors turned the Bulgarian state into a main source of capital through redistribution of EU funding. Borisov had now become the person to “ration the portions” and a series of strategic wins in municipal elections helped him strengthen his grip over the country. At the same time, his financial minister Djankov, following the Schäuble doctrine, pursued reckless austerity policies, which not only cut social welfare, but also brought an economic contraction for the sake of having a balanced budget.
The crushing effects of austerity were soon felt and in 2013 people took to the streets in nation-wide protests against the price of electricity, poverty and oligarchy. What is particularly interesting is the complete absence of an austerity frame in these protests. The Bulgarian Socialist Party, which had betrayed its principles and introduced the flat tax in 2008, could not offer any coherent left-wing critique of austerity and the sporadic voices of the radical left were drowned in predominantly nationalist framing. After Borisov’s resignation, BSP received a second chance and as everyone familiar with the events remembers, the party squandered public trust by hiring the DPS mogul Delyan Peevski as the head of State Security.
Peevski’s scandalous appointment led to a second series of protests in 2013, this time limited to the rather well-off and well-educated Sofia bourgeoisie, who insisted on more morality in politics and ultimately managed to consolidate in a new political actor, the Reformers’ Block. Borisov’s re-election in 2014 to govern together with the protesters-supported Reformers’ Block seemed to be the ultimate irony of history. Until these last 2017 elections, of course, in which GERB is again the winner. History repeats itself first as a tragedy, then as a farce, and the third time no one bothers to care. The love is long gone – the majority voting for Borisov in 2017 reminds more of those people stuck in an abusive relationship, too afraid to leave because of fear of the unknown. This metaphor of course is too dramatic and reality is often simply pragmatic. A friend told me that, before the 2013 parliamentary elections, a colleague of her mum said: “We had better vote for Borisov, otherwise that guy (sic!) Merkel would stop the money”. This simple anecdote explains remarkably well the results of the 2017 elections in Bulgaria.
As the presidential elections showed clearly, GERB do not have scruples about scaring people that if they do not get enough votes, money for EU projects would stop. The structural funds have become a way to perpetuate corruption and dependence, while concentrating business activity and preventing catching-up with other EU countries. The reason why the star of GERB did not fade away quickly, as it happened to so many other newcomer parties in recent Bulgarian history (from the Tsar’s Party to “Bulgaria without Censorship”), is that GERB managed to establish control over local structures and to entrench themselves with a mixture of a carrot and stick approach.
Beyond politics after politics ?
Is there any alternative? Under the leadership of Kornelia Ninova, the socialist party opened up to new intellectual currents and stated its intention to reinvent itself. At the same time, BSP remains strongly conservative and serious doubts persist about Kornelia Ninova representing the interests of the business-wing of the party. There is still no progressive left party in Bulgaria that could appeal to young people and combine socially progressive values with left-wing economic policy.
Paradoxically, many among the Bulgarian New Left chose to support the socially liberal but economically right-wing “Da, Bulgaria” (“Yes, Bulgaria”) that split from the Reformers’ Block with an intent to pursue judicial reform and fight against corruption in the country. “Da, Bulgaria” represents the true spirit of the summer 2013 protests both in the positive sense of refusing co-optation and attempting to establish the rule of law, and in the negative sense of being too focused on the concerns of the most privileged, often anti-communist citizens of Sofia. The universalist demands of “Da, Bulgaria” failed to address and cope with the very particular needs and dependencies of the majority of people in the rest of the country.
The proud emphasis of “Yes, Bulgaria” on receiving the largest share of the vote in university cities such as Oxford and Amsterdam is a good example of their self-perception as the “smart and beautiful”. What was particularly worrying about this discourse was the uncritical fetishization of those “who have made it abroad” as entrepreneurs and pro-active shapers of their destiny. The hard reality of thousands of low-paid, precarious temporary workers in foreign countries was glossed over by “Da, Bulgaria”, disappointed they were not appreciated everywhere according to their merit. Instead of being morally disappointed with the voters, the businessman Mareshki appealed to the disappointments of the voters themselves and promised them cheap medicines and petrol. The ultimate pragmatism of Mareshki clashed with the elite idealism of “Yes, Bulgaria”. He crossed the threshold, they sadly did not. In the absence of a strong ideology that could allow workers to become aware of their common problems, struggles, and hopes, they perceived themselves as consumers above all and were bought off with the promise of cheap commodities or secure money flows. Divided, we stand.
To sum up, Borisov’s exceptional talent for bluffing, resigning and returning to power can only be matched by his lack of strategic vision for the economic development of a country with increasing emigration, staggering brain drain, and a progressively decreasing population. In a situation in which none of the other parties can come up with a radical program, a realistic utopia for the path forward, everyone played it safe, trusted their common sense and protected stability. Things will not get better but hopefully they will not get worse. The only problem with such a way of thinking is that things do get worse, in a stable and sustainable way. Playing it safe when losing is never a good strategy. And everyone, apart from GERB, lost these elections.