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The presidential elections in Bulgaria between systemic nationalism and the anti-systemic vote

Title image: Eagle’s bridge in central Sofia. A symbolic site for mass protests and demonstrations since the beginning of the transition. The crossing has seen meetings of the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) at the dawn of the transition, of policemen, taxi drivers, ecoactivists… It was one of the basic venues of the civic protests in 2013-14. It was here that the concert-meeting of Slavi’s Show took place, in a last-ditch effort to mobilize support for their referendum before the presidential elections. The event received numerous negative responses, because it was thought to have gathered the country’s nationalists.
Title image: Eagle’s bridge in central Sofia. A symbolic site for mass protests and demonstrations since the beginning of the transition. The crossing has seen meetings of the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) at the dawn of the transition, of policemen, taxi drivers, ecoactivists… It was one of the basic venues of the civic protests in 2013-14. It was here that the concert-meeting of Slavi’s Show took place, in a last-ditch effort to mobilize support for their referendum before the presidential elections. The event received numerous negative responses, because it was thought to have gathered the country’s nationalists.

November 13th of this year saw the second round of presidential elections in Bulgaria. With an overwhelming majority, General Rumen Radev became Bulgaria’s fifth elected president. the outcome of the presidential elections in Bulgaria came to light. We take this opportunity to analyze the political assumptions surrounding the election results.

There are multiple ways to interpret the electoral outcomes. First, as a victory of Russia over the European Union. Second, as rise of the anti-systemic vote (usually meant as a reaction against GERB [2]). Third, as change in the balance between the now-neoliberal-formerly-communist BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party) [3] and the GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, a center-right party that has been in power with minor interruptions since 2009), that is, as the revitalization of BSP after at least two years of serious public agony, and as a collapse of the deeply entrenched second government of GERB.

Our thesis is of a fourth type, which we will explicate below.

The election results [4]

Though previously unknown on the political stage BSP’s nominee, pilot and air force general Rumen Radev, won the second round with almost 60%, leaving behind Tsetska Tsacheva – GERB’s nominee – with a little more than 36%.

After the first round, the results were as follows:

In third place after Radev and Tsatcheva (who took first and second place in the first round as well), with almost 15% of the vote, was the nationalist coalition’s (“United Patriots”) nominee, Krasimir Karakachanov. In fourth place, with over 11%, was Veselin Mareshki – a self-proclaimed businessman and patriot, and the nominee of the “National Liberation Movement for a Pure and Sacred Republic.” Fifth, with less than 7%, was Plamen Oresharski, who ran as an independent candidate, supported by DPS [5]. He served as Bulgarian Prime Minister in 2013-2014 in the government of BSP, DPS and ATAKA [6], and resigned in response to popular anti-corruption protests against appointments in his government. The sixth place was taken by the nominee of the Reformist bloc – a pro-European and pro-market coalition, consisting of six right-liberal parties – who gained less that 6% from the vote. Their nominee, Traicho Traikov, is an ex-Minister of Economy, who supports ACTA and shale gas extraction in Bulgaria.

The Chalga Referendum

Although mostly ignored by the international media, simultaneously with the presidential elections, there was a very important, but ultimately unsuccessful referendum for change in the electoral system, known as the Chalga Referendum. For the last three to four years referendums have been encouraged as means to legitimize various political leaders through a call for “direct” popular support. The initiative for this one came from “Slavi’s Show”—the most successful TV show in Bulgaria after the emergence of private media. The host and producer, Slavi Trifonov, is known for the popularization of Bulgarian folklore music played in modern arrangements. He is also known for appealing to the nationalistic sentiments of his show’s audience,  and for regularly disseminating openly racist, xenophobic and homophobic messages.

The questions posed by the Chlaga Referendum were almost identical to the ones initiated by President Plevneliev nearly three years ago, two of which have already been rejected by parliament. President Plevneliev’s referendum asked, 1) Do you support electing some of the members of parliament by a majoritarian vote? 2) Do you support the introduction of compulsory voting in elections and decision-making through national referendums? 3) Do you support remote electronic voting during elections? Trifonov’s questions, on the other hand, were: 1) Do you support electing members of parliament through a majority voting system, with a two-round system of  absolute majority? 2) Do you support the introduction of compulsory voting at elections and national referendums? 3) Do you support the annual state subsidy provided for financing political parties and coalitions to be 1 lev per actual vote at the last parliamentary elections? [The last proposal would have significantly reduced the existing party subsidy.]

Despite the fact that the two sets of questions were nearly identical, the referendums received very different reactions from the dominant right-wing opinion makers. [7] For example, Ognyan Minchev, sociologist and political expert, stated the following in response to outgoing President Plevneliev’s earlier referendum:

The referendum proposal comes at a moment when the ruling triple coalition [a reference to the BSP-led coalition that formed the government between May 2013 and July 2014] wants to enforce an electoral code developed through the experience, knowledge and practice gained in buying the gypsy quarter of Kyustendil – and other similar places. Don’t be surprised by the aggressive reaction of the ruling suite and their media servants to President Plevneliev’s proposal.

In response to Trifonov’s referendum now, Minchev completely reversed his previous position:

Leaving aside the issue of whether it is a sign of civic hygiene to use an entertainment TV show for propagating political causes, essentially the reply to all of the three questions should be a resounding “No”. […] Someone might ask – why not vote on the referendum with “No” on all the three questions? Because by doing so you’re legitimizing the chalga referendum of the sly yokels who got their hands on a spot in the national television. That is why.

The conservative political scientist Momchil Doitchev commented on Trifinov’s referendum in the same spirit:

Communism is gone, but its mentality remains. Especially for those trained in this mentality for over half a century and for three generations of “wide popular masses”. The corpse of communism wasn’t buried, but was left to rot and has now become a vampire in the mausoleum of our mindless post-communist drunkenness. The drunkenness of liberty puts reason to sleep, and the sleep of reason gave birth to new monsters [i.e. the new referendum].

It looks like the people are capable of reasonable and free choice only when such a choice is posed by a right-wing political body (President Plevneliev) and against the long-standing nominal enemies of the right forces – BSP, DPS and ATAKA, who together formed the previous government. When practically identical questions are posed by the popular figure of Trifonov though, through a call for national democratic unity and as a stand against the status quo (such was the pretense of their initiative, supported further with an open and free concert-meeting at a key central crossroad in Sofia), the conservative and liberal right respond with demophobic discourse, of previously unseen intensity. The strongest expression of this discourse came from the Reformist Bloc nominee Traicho Traikov. After his weak results at the first round of the elections, he virtually called those who didn’t vote for him stupid and incapable of making reasonable choices (explicitly pointing to the voters of the main parties in the previous government – BSP and DPS).

Considering the fact that the elections and the referendum were held at the same time, the importance of this referendum could be explained by 1) the mobilization of popular engagement in the election process [8]; 2) the representation the referendum a choice for or against the “system”; for the “status quo” or “change”; 3) the incitement of demophobic speech by liberal and right-wing circles, who have a monopoly over the media and civic activism; and 4) the subsuming of every idea for unity and change into a nationalistic framework.

In the end, all three proposals in the referendum were narrowly defeated.

The “anti-systemic” vote and systemic nationalism

As usual, the elections established a series of dividing lines, along which some groups of people could be attracted and others pushed aside. We believe there are four main discourses that have been put to work in the political debates of recent weeks.

The most abstract one is geopolitical enmity – the Euro-Atlantic against Eurasian orientation. This was intensified further during the second round of the elections with the two remaining candidates—BSP’s Radev and GERB’s Tsatcheva, being described, respectively, as pro-Russian and pro-EU. This division still seems insignificant for many (including according to the international response) since Radev claims that his goal is for Bulgaria to be a full-fledged member of the EU.

The second dichotomy, drawn unnoticeably and completely without reflection in the public debate, is the one of the elite against the common people (as described with the abovementioned examples in the context of Trifonov’s referendum). It is an old narrative, coming mainly from right-wing liberals in the country, that claims that every political mistake is a fault of the backward, provincial, communal, stupid, etc. people. Effectively, the tendentious demophobia of the elite right brought grist to the mill of the protest vote and greatly contricuted to the elections’ outcome.

The leading discursive struggle, though, put to work unscrupulously from all sides and cutting through all the other discourses, was that of the systemic vote against the anti-systemic vote, of the status quo against change, etc. It reached a level of absurdity when leading presidential candidates declared themselves to be against the corrupt political class.

The definition of what it means to be anti-systemic varied across political programs, but the nationalistic and conservative narrative remained uncontested – thus proving that nationalism is completely in the public’s blind spot (allowing for it to be systemic). In fact, nationalism now seems like a necessary condition if someone claims they’re against the status quo. In contrast with the recent US elections, here this narrative was not embodied in one particular subject, but was supported openly and in different ways by virtually all players.

Rumen Radev poster during the election race: “Bulgaria will not take on the role of an European migrant ghetto.”
Rumen Radev poster during the election race: “Bulgaria will not take on the role of an European migrant ghetto.”

For instance, in an official campaign video, Rumen Radev, stood against a background of banners and fortresses reminding us that we are heirs of the rulers of the great Medieval Bulgaria, when the country was (!) rich and prosperous. During a meeting with voters he stated that migrants are heading to our border, but the majority of them are economic migrants, while those fleeing from the war in Syria are very few. Radev took a stand for the limitation of refugees to a minimum, and for moving refugee centers outside the cities. Also, although he doesn’t have the mandate to do so, during a press-conference after the first election round, he supported the introduction of religious tuition at schools, because, in his words, the Orthodox church is at the core of Bulgarian identity. For her part, Tsacheva raised a scandal, saying that the national interest comes before human rights. She was also in favor of creating segregated refugee districts. The nominee of the nationalistic coalition “United Patriots” Krasimir Karakachanov and that of the of the pro-EU and pro-market Reformist Bloc Traicho Traikov agreed that repressive measures are a legitimate way to deal with migrants on the border, because the state services has no way to know who’s a terrorist, who’s a refugee, who’s an economic migrant. The candidate of the “National Liberation Movement for a Pure and Sacred Republic” Veselin Mareshki said after the first round that he would support the candidate on the ballot who has fewer gypsy votes.

In the abscence of a significant progressive force, the discourses of demophobia and nationalism seem to work as two opposing, but interdependent public energies. The more the elite right-wing, which controls the liberal pro-EU and pro-market narrative throughout much of the media, bashes the common people for all past, present and future flaws in political life, the more virtually all other players embrace nationalism to woo the electorate with their anti-neoliberal agenda. This endless struggle opens an ever-growing vacuum of depoliticization, whose outcome is probably yet to be seen. But, quite clearly, the current political situation in the country is a product of this vacuum.

Undoubtedly, Radev won with the support of the nationalistic vote – 64% of the votes for Karakachanov and 50% of those for Mareshki were directed to him after the first round. But after the stormy weeks before the ballots were cast and against the ever increasing predictions for political crisis, this conclusion is not sufficient for understanding the current situation.

Looking at the results, we cannot help but notice a few oddities. Why is it that only 20% of those who voted for Tsacheva are not open supporters of GERB? Why is Radev leading in all age groups? Why did he gain the support of 31% of those who voted for Traikov (the anti-communist candidate)? Why did he attract around 200,000 votes from DPS, which can’t have been cast by the ethnic Bulgarians to which his political positions are addressed?


The key to understanding the situation is recognizing the fervent exploitation of the idea for change, and the conditions of possibility for the realization of that change. In fact, it may well be the starting point from which a meaningful progressive force might emerge, if it manages to stand against the abovementioned vacuum.

At the present moment, the only significant change is the resignation of the government following the announcement of election results. This was promised when, in October, Prime Minister Borisov warned that if the nominee of GERB loses the elections, he will file for the resignation of the whole government (which, by the way, he justified as the “will of the people”). A process for the appointment of a new interim government is currently being determined, in consultations between the new and the former presidents. And the new parliamentary elections are expected to be held at the beginning of April.

The resignation of the government, as interpreted by the mainstream media, backs up the dominant political narrative in two respects. First, it helps create the impression that, since it’s his own fault, Borissov was just ruling a neoliberal system in the wrong way, rather than allowing for the idea that there’s something wrong with the system itself. The former government is judged mostly by some badly implemented policies and corruption (the mis-management of European funds, legal reforms that never came to pass, a controversial electoral reform, etc.), and not by the negative consequeces of policies in the social and economic spheres (major education reform, further austerity measures in the health care sector, etc.). In other words, Borissov is judged for all the neoliberal policies that didn’t happen, rather than those that actually took place.

Second, it confuses the reasons for Radev’s popular appeal, which is not reducible to nationalism. Apart from the way they passively or actively encourage nationalism and apart from their unprecedented demophobia, the biggest flaw of right-wing politicians (from the “patriots” to the elite right of the Reformist Bloc, to GERB) lies in something much more significant: in their inbuilt inability to see and name social suffering (let alone address it by adequate policies). Radev, in a very similar manner to Trump in the US, stood for reclaiming the dignity of the common Bulgarian, and this is something that remained largely unnoticed in the media discourse during the election race. This is why yet another odd (at least for us) fact remained unnoticed – the fact that this campaign rhetoric came from the nominee of BSP – a party which introduced the flat tax and took part in the mass privatization in the ‘90s. In a similar manner, such declarations in support of average citizens sound bizarre when they come from the billionaire Trump. [9]

While poorly recognized and covered by Bulgarian mass media, a very significant proportion of the population are tired of austerity measures in the social sphere, while feeling the waning significance of their participation in political life, and at the same time while watching the rise and fall of the oligarchic upper crust widely covered by the media. All of this was openly (as a sign of the depoliticized manner in which we do politics) admitted by one of the leading right-wing media outlets, Economedia, one day after the election.

Against this background Radev claimed that he is one of you and that he will work for the dignity of all. He was a previously unknown army man, endorsed by one of the leading parties, which traditionally, around election professes concern for social justice., In addition to this concern—which hardly ever extends past elections–Radev deployed a nationalist rhetoric to mobilize Bulgarians’ deep fear of “foreigners” and of national degradation, took positions against treaties like TTIP and CETA, maintained a distanced but ultimately loyal position towards the EU, and expressed open hatred towards the currently ruling majority Facing him was a woman (Tsatcheva) with political experience and a familiar public presence, who was put forward as practically the representative of the status quo.

All of this translates into the following “election language”: “Borissov was arrogant, he underestimated the enemy, and on top of that proposed a candidate that could never be elected”. The distinction between being in support of “the system” and being against the system, called upon so zealously just a few days before the election, simply fell apart in the party, parliamentary and geopolitical discourse.

In Bulgaria’s post-election atmosphere we think it’s crucial to pay attention to how the resulting crisis is discussed, for we must correctly identify and name the crisis before we can find solutions to it. In our opinion, this is the key take-away from the events of recent weeks: If the vote for Radev was a vote against GERB, then this was also a vote against neoliberal rule, which wrecked havoc on the country for almost seven years. It is from this dichotomy that the rhetoric of being for or against the “system”, for the “status quo” of for “change”, drew its energies. It may be useful for progressive circles reflect on this explanation of the current political situation.

Ignoring those who celebrate the victory of Radev as a victory of an authentic democratic voice for real change, the Bulgarian left, which remained unrepresented for yet another round of elections, now has two options. It can either remain trapped by national borders and panic at the consolidation of the fascist spirit, or it can discern the critical and popular potential of the situation and seek to mobilize people’s discontent in a truly democratic direction. This mobilization could take place alongside that of left circles in the West, who also feel such a necessity after Trump’s victory.

dinevIvaylo Dinev  is a poet and anthropologist. During 2013-2014, he was one of the informal leaders of the student protest movement in Bulgaria.






Stanislav Dodov studies Philosophy and the mysterious ways of educational policy. He’s also a member of, an activist magazine concerned with radical politics.






Translated collectively. Proofread by Marla Zubel.


[1] It should be noted the that mandate of the President of Bulgaria is limited to representative, election, military and veto functions, and arbitration. The institution has no legislative power.

[2] Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) is a party formed around the dominant figure of Boyko Borissov – bodyguard of the ex-communist leader Todor Zhivkov, former Chief Secretary of the Ministry of Interior in the government of Simeon Koburggotsky (Bulgaria’s ex-king), former mayor of Sofia and Prime Minister in two Bulgarian governments. Under GERB’s rule Bulgaria went through the most austere neoliberal policies, enforced with the help of partners from across virtually the entire political spectrum. The public image of the party in recent years swings between the that of stability and of the entrenchment of all state structures.

[3] The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) is considered to be the main heir of the pre-1989 ruling Bulgarian Communist party (BKP). BSP, along with the Movement for rights and freedoms (DPS) and the nationalist ATAKA formed the ruling coalition of the previous Bulgarian government in the period May 2013 – July 2014. The then Prime Minister and recent presidential candidate Plamen Oresharski filed for the resignation of the government after a year-long popular protest. In an earlier ruling coalition between 2005 and 2009 the party introduced the lowest flat tax in the EU. BSP is regularly presented to the public as having connections with Moscow, collaborating with oligarchic circles, and as a representative of those nostalgic for the previous regime.

[4] Data from Central Election Commission.

[5] The Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) is a party established at the dawn of Bulgarian transition (in 1990) with the goal to protect the rights and the interests of ethnic minorities in the country. Over the course of several years DPS managed to become one of the biggest parties in Bulgaria, with a liberal orientation and an influential and disciplined nationwide structure. Even today there are countless accusations of misfeasance against the founder and former leader of the party, Ahmed Dogan.

[6] Nationalist party famous for their populist messages and connections with Russia. Founded in 2005 by Volen Siderov – journalist and TV host, ex-member of the first democratic party after the changes (Union of the democratic forces) and ex-editor in chief of Demokratsia newspaper.

[7] Which we noticed thanks to a Facebook post by Zhana Tsoneva.

[8] The voting activity reached a new record high, especially as for the first time the voter turnout for presidential elections was higher than that at the last parliamentary elections. Of course, it should be added that compulsory voting was introduced for a first time at these elections, and it’s probably another major factor for this activity. But we are yet to observe how compulsory voting and popular discontent work together, and what sort of tendencies are produced in the process.

[9] In this sense it is interesting to note the association Mareshki makes with the presidential elections in Bulgaria and the elections in the US in an interview for Dnevnik: At the moment we don’t have the choices of the big democracy – the USA. After all, there the people managed to to have a choice between systemic and anti-systemic players. At home the authorities managed to deprive us of such a choice. This is why, at the moment, the choice is either GERB, or BSP and DPS. This is not a real choice between candidates for president. We must choose between the way GERB rules and the ways of the in tandem DPS and BSP.