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Change or Stability, Apathy or Disgust: Bulgarian voters lose out yet again

Ballot boxes for mayoral and municipal council races in Bulgaria. Source: Sofia Globe.

If elections in liberal democracy were to be described as briefly as possible, perhaps it would go something like this: the people get to decide if they want change or more of the same (with both options, of course, embodied in aspiring representatives). Such was the explicit dilemma defining the political discourse in Bulgaria in the past few months. And it seems that the people have chosen more of the same.

After a short, insubstantial campaign and two rounds in many places (the capital included), local election results became official on the 4th of November. In the epic battle between the ethereal forces of “change” and “stability” – the main tropes of, on the one hand, all the players in the opposition, in and out of parliament, and on the other, the ruling party – “change” seemed to be winning the debate. But “stability” won the elections. Again. Not spectacularly, but firmly, as it always has.

And the actual answer to the dilemma? These elections can hardly provide it. In a declining democracy the will of the people vanishes in the widening cracks of misery, manipulation and disgust.

At a glimpse: GERB stands strong

GERB, the bigger partner in the ruling government coalition, managed to maintain its dominance throughout the country, winning the mayoral seats in 17 of 27 regional centers. This includes Sofia, so the party is looking forward to four more years of control over the capital (which it has ruled for a decade) and presumably, two more years of serenity until the next general elections. Hence, despite the usual instability of Bulgarian governments, GERB has secured its road to becoming the party with the longest total period of rule since 1989. Even without considering its explicit messaging, this fact alone suggests its role as the sole bearer of stability and thus, creator of an ever more furious opposition framing itself as a “change”.

The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), acting as a major opposition since resigning from government in 2014, has taken four mayoral seats in regional cities (all in second-round fights against GERB) – an achievement in comparison to 2015, when it won none. But despite the slight improvement, the results stand in a staggering contrast to the promise. Starting with the 2016 presidential elections, when its candidate won the race, BSP, under the new leadership of Cornelia Ninova, is probably the most vociferous preacher of the “change” narrative. But its own change praxis seems to lead to nothing but downfall. Ever since 2016, the oldest Bulgarian political party has been in deep crisis, torn between internal conflicts and electoral failures. What’s more, after the results of the European elections and now these, BSP’s new ideological line, changed to what could be described as socialist nationalism (with plenty of neoliberal deviations), doesn’t seem to have borne much fruit.

Which brings us to the resounding defeat of the explicitly nationalist parties – VMRO, ATAKA, NFSB and VOLYA. Despite having candidates at the ballot box[1]  in some regional centers like Plovdiv and Stara Zagora, none of these have taken a mayoral seat and all got comparatively few councillor’s seats.

A closer look: United for (some) change

These elections point to several significant trends on the official stage of Bulgarian politics. First is that the GERB’s own stability is now in question. The current results and its authoritarian tendencies over the past year or two signify a wearing out process for the party, compared to their popularity in the first years. They may be the winners again, but with a worse result than before, after much harder battles in many locations, and at a sizable cost in terms of prestige and finance (as shown below).

Then there is the number and character of local coalitions. Usually these are unprincipled and meant to attach as many players as possible to local oligarchical circles; sometimes they are simply an inevitable consequence of the lack of candidates. However, this time this was a purposeful tactic against GERB in most places. Wherever GERB lost, it was either to BSP (in four cities), or to independent candidates, small parties or local coalitions consisting of other small parties (in six cities). In fact, independent candidates came as a significant novelty this time, with such figures winning in three regional centers. In Sofia Boris Bonev, a longstanding and recognized urban activist and architect, started meddling in the chances of the usual suspects at the beginning of the campaign; he achieved an impressive 11% on the first round and provoked a lasting debate over what campaigns should look like nowadays. In this context it is no surprise that many are discussing the emerging “tactical center” meant to overthrow GERB at some point in the future.

As could be expected, the battle for Sofia is representative of the rest of the country. The struggle here was between the explicit candidates of “change” and “stability”– Maya Manolova, independent, but with a BSP background, versus Yordanka Fandakova (who replaced Borissov as mayor in 2009) on behalf of GERB and with numerous scandals on her account. Manolova lost by only 4%. Clearly, a victory for her would have been a sign of GERB’s final days. Since Hungary also had held municipal elections recently (in which the opposition was victorious), and considering the many similarities between the regimes of Borissov and Orban, a comparison is apt. Pundits were quick to predict a Budapest scenario for Sofia, declaring that the opposition had a good chance to win the capital, but only if it united. The newly elected mayor of Budapest even officially endorsed Maya Manolova, to which she responded that “freedom means the same thing in all languages – throwing monocracy away. Three weeks ago the citizens and parties who wanted change for Budapest united. Leftists, rightists, centrists, and greens united and defeated the monocracy of Orban.” And indeed, according to exit polls some 40% of voters on the right[1] supported Manolova on the second round, in line with the call of opinion leaders among their own ranks. However, the official position of the parties on the right were in support for Fandakova, whether in full favor or as a gesture against “communists,” Manolova being supposedly one. And this is where the similarities with Budapest end. In Hungary, unlike in Sofia, the opposition alliance has been brewing officially for quite some time now. Moreover, while in Hungary the far right is not wholly aligned with Fidesz, in Bulgaria all far-right parties are playing along with GERB in one way or another.

But the “change” camp faces even bigger problems. At the moment there is no political subject, be it a party or an individual, that could fill the void an eventual defeat of GERB would leave. For now, the results and the growing popularity of independent candidates coming from a civic and expert background is serving this purpose, but only as a statement of protest or interrogation of the status quo; it cannot last forever and, come general elections, it would be of no tangible use. What’s more, such tactics prolong, in zombie form, the life of the otherwise dead discourse of “neither left not right” which has dominated the political debate for years, feeding neoliberal rule, hindering politicization and stifling the democratic impulse. It comes as no surprise that even the nominally socialist BSP is willing to embrace a centrist position at any time, especially when it comes to “national unity” and standing against GERB, when no one is willing or able to formulate a decisively progressive social platform.

As a result, the current push for “change” will probably reach yet another dead end in the long run, being mostly a slogan with no substance other than “we must take down GERB;” Or at least no substance different from what we’ve been through for the past 30 years. Unprincipled coalitions or alliances “above ideology,” “for unity,” etc., be it on the “change” or the “stability” side, sustain the alienation of people from their supposed representatives and even their very lives as citizens, and cannot have a lasting impact – a lesson that can be seen all across Europe, but which we have hardly learned. In a gesture to strengthen its position, the “stability” side wasted no time and accused the opposition alliance of being “communist” from the highest tribune – on the 8th of November Prime mister Borissov said that even the liberal right are heirs to the red nomenklatura – a proven discursive tactic which successfully kills social alternatives every time they threaten to sprout from the otherwise fertile soil of discontent. Adding further insult to injury, ex-president Plevneliev – poster child of the liberal right just until recently – joined the same chorus, declaring his deep disappointment with right-wingers who voted for Manolova.

As for the far right, its parties’ results continue a lasting tendency of low electoral support. Some were quick to celebrate, announcing that Bulgarian society is not completely lost to the ultra-nationalist sentiment which dominates the public discourse. That may be so. But then again, this same sentiment is what feeds the far-right VMRO’s positions as part of the government coalition. The participation of VMRO and other far-right parties in elections is not motivated by a desire to win at all costs, but rather by the intent to stay visible and available for future coalitions along the same lines as the current one in government between GERB and the United Patriots (VMRO, ATAKA and NFSB) and the compliant presence of VOLYA in parliament. This has been the case with ATAKA in previous governments as well. Hence the coalitions between BSP and nationalists in the first round of elections in many places, which would be a complete scandal in other times and places. As always, what the major representative of the status quo in the face of GERB doesn’t offer and the official opposition cannot even begin to discuss, i.e. a social alternative, nationalists reframe as neotraditionalism using the resentment of the small and poor, but proud nation. This is the discursive tactic which helps them surge just beneath the peak of power, despite (as a rule in the last 10 years) having no more than 10% of the votes.[KM2] [3] 

An even closer look: between apathy and disgust

It’s a public secret that the local elections are the second most important to political parties, after the general ones. They determine the actual distribution of power and resources in the everyday lives of communities and businesses. Hence, as a rule, parties aim to gather as many votes as possible, by any means necessary.

A vast number of null ballots on the first round (between 600,000 or 10-25% of the total, according to unofficial calculations), the amount of complaints to the Central Electoral Commission (541) and the countless testimonies of vote buying and intimidation, among many other accusations, point to an unprecedented level of fraud. A member of parliament and a key representative of DPS[2] announced a day after the second round that the many violations of the electoral code “question the legitimacy of the elections.” The same day the committee which nominated Maya Manolova stated that it would demand revocation of the results.

The manipulation of the electoral process can (and should be) a subject of separate analysis. But the rueful state of Bulgarian (neo)liberal democracy goes much deeper. The tendency over the years is a slow but steady decline in voting turnout – in this case, 50% in the first round and 42% in the second, compared to 53% in the first round in 2015, between 50 and 55% in 2011 (the data is not available online) and 83% in 1991. The mayors of most cities are elected by around 20% of all eligible voters. This includes Sofia where candidates in the second round were competing for just 40% of the voters, meaning that the re-elected mayor Fandakova and GERB represent less than 213 thousand, i.e. one fifth of all current residents of the Bulgarian capital who are eligible to vote. The situation is especially dramatic for major cities like Plovdiv and Varna, where GERB’s candidates won with 16 and 17% accordingly.

Is such low turnout typical of representative democracy? Maybe. Does it have a disastrous effect on the whole of society? Probably. Is it a consequence of alienation of people from their own public life? Certainly. Of course, if not specifically studied, the concrete reasons for this low turnout will remain a subject for speculation. Why is the greater part of the public refraining from casting votes? Is it a well-thought out tactic? Is it disgust, or is it apathy? No one knows for sure, but the decisive factors that probably shape this behavior are beyond doubt. According to Eurostat data, as of 2018 Bulgaria remains the EU leader in depth of material deprivation and inequality of income distribution. At the same time, as of 2017 the country has one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the EU. The personal flat tax, along with many other firmly rooted measures favorable to the economic elites, are creating and punishing poverty. For instance, almost 80% of the people earn less than 450 euro per month (official government data). According to experts, around 40% of the Bulgarians will not afford to pay for sufficient home heating in the coming winter.

And it’s not just economic disparities. The typical message from well-meaning democrats is that higher voter turnout would make vote buying and manipulation useless. But this is taking cause for effect; fraud would be of no use if the majority of citizens were able and willing to participate in political life. It all looks like a general and irreparable alienation from public matters, for all the reasons a brief article like this cannot list and explain. But it would suffice to say that extreme and unprecedented cases of corruption and crushing of social and civil rights coming from the highest level in the recent years were left unpunished by the public.

What remains similar in Bulgaria, Hungary and, until recently, other countries in the region is the desperate need for a sensible and visible socially oriented alternative. It’s high time that citizens demand their current representatives turn towards such alternatives, or construct a new one themselves. On the other side of the globe, the people in Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Haiti are giving us all a lesson in democracy, in active seeking of meaningful alternatives, in how to make a stand for the people. A staggering contrast to the ephemeral “change” Bulgarians have to be content with.

In the meantime, “stability” reigns supreme.

[1] Mostly hardline anticommunists and anti-BSP voters, who typically vote for the liberal-right Democratic Bulgaria coalition, which had its own candidate in the first round.

[2] Dvizhenie za Prava i Svobodi, or the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, is one of the parties symbolic of the Bulgarian transition to liberal democracy. Founded in 1990 as an ethnic party, their official aim is to represent ethnic minorities, especially Turkish ones.

Stanislav Dodov engages in public discussion whenever he can, and in the meantime does various things in the fields of social pedagogy and human rights.