Bulgarian elections: no good news for the left

By Mike Phipps

You may have missed it, but Bulgarians went to the polls earlier this month.  On April 4th, Bulgarians abroad queued for hours in a much-anticipated election, although overall turnout actually fell. Only 40% off Bulgarian citizens eligible to vote will be represented in the new parliament.

The result was a big upset for Boyko Borisov’s centre-right ruling GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria), which had enjoyed 12 years in power. Although GERB came top with 26% of the vote, its share was down from 33% four years ago. Borisov put a brave face on it and offered himself as leader of a grand coalition. “Do you have anyone more experienced than me?” he asked on Facebook.

But analysts were clear that his party had effectively lost. One said, “While Borisov might try his best, it seems unlikely that he would be able to form a government and return as a prime minister.” And this was confirmed a few days ago when Borisov finally ruled himself out as the next prime minister.

Borisov’s poor performance came despite observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe documenting in their report that “massive use of state resources gave the ruling party a significant advantage”. Bulgaria also ranks 111th in Reporters Without Borders’ global press freedom ranking. In the last few years, all independent-minded journalists have been purged from the three national TV channels.

But it was a bad result too for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the former communists and previously the leading opposition party, down from 27% to a dire 15% of the vote. The party ran on an openly pro-business economic agenda as well as a conservative socio-cultural programme and failed to inspire.

The surprise of the night was Ima Takuv Narod  -There is Such a People(TISAP) – an anti-establishment party led by popular television host and singer Slavi Trifonov, which surged from nowhere into second place with over 17% of the vote. Other smaller protest parties – mainly from the right – also performed well.

TISAP’s rise is a shock. It echoes the success of Italy’s 5 Star Movement, Ukraine’s presidential election that elevated a TV personality to high office and of course the rise of reality TV impresario Donald Trump.

One commentator observed: “TISAP has no political program, little is known about the vision of the party and what they intend. Their leader famously did not participate in any political debates. The party ran on a vague platform founded on populist and nationalistic societal tropes.”

TISAP’s leader , Slavi Trifonov, is seen as a macho patriot who has been described as “a very angry middle-aged man gathering the politically disappointed.”

The parliamentary vote was the first electoral test for the government since major social unrest last year. Thousands took to the streets in two months of protest against Borisov’s new constitution, widely seen as a power grab. But endemic government corruption – bribery, embezzlement and procurement violations – have also long been a concern. Bulgaria is ranked the most corrupt country in the European Union.

The protests in Bulgaria coincided with those in Belarus but the international media was far less interested. Nor were these the first mobilisations. Borisov, who has been almost continuously in office since 2009, has been the focus of several waves of protests. Many of these have not just targeted institutional corruption but also raised social demands.

In 2013, Borisov was forced to resign after demonstrations against high energy costs, low living standards and corruption.  Despite allegations that he had used state agencies to spy on members of his own cabinet, Borisov formed a new coalition in 2014, shoring up his conservative base with harsh anti-immigrant measures.  Foreign investment collapsed and the economy nosedived, partly because of the regime’s appetite for hostile takeovers of profitable private companies, a hallmark of would-be dictators elsewhere. In response, there were more protests in 2018.

Things have barely changed since a video clip went viral in 2013 of a seven-years-old boy who came to demonstrate with his parents shouting at a Bulgarian National Television journalist: “There is no way we can stand it anymore. You can’t live here! We hate the politicians, we hate the parties, we hate the parliament, we hate the thieves, we hate the mafia, we hate the nonsense around us. No money, no jobs, no state really. Poverty and death around us. You can’t live here!”

A former policeman and member of the Communist Party between 1979 and 1991, Borisov was accused by the magazine U.S. Congressional Quarterly back in 2007 of being directly linked to the biggest mobsters in Bulgaria. Other allegations include intimidation as well as racism towards Turkish and Roma people.

Evgenii Dainov, a Bulgarian author and founding member of the Greens, wrote recently that democracy and the rule of law have been effectively dismantled in the country. In office, says Dainov, Borisov “flooded the system with men like himself, re-designing the entire machinery of state on the principle that it is not the law that rules everyone in equal measure, but that it is the strong who prey on the weak.”

Pretending to fight corruption, the government recently set up a parallel legal system to confiscate people’s assets. Those targeted were invariably critics of the regime.

All of this has occurred with impunity in an EU member state. A further factor in recent protests is public concern at the prospect of Eurozone membership. Corrupt as Bulgarian is, there is no belief that the EU has the mechanisms to deal with this, nor that joining the Eurozone will do anything other than add to greater indebtedness and resultant austerity.

But despite all the activity on the streets, the left was not able to offer an attractive alternative at this election, a failing underlined by the low turnout. The Socialists, despite different origins, have similar weaknesses to other European parties of the left: an ageing membership, no clear vision or plan to tackle the economic crisis.

In Britain, the Corbyn-led Labour Party was able to buck the trend of decline by offering a clear, popular anti-austerity alternative in 2017. The Portuguese Socialists are another party that escaped the general malaise by moving to the left. Elsewhere, most notably in Germany and France, prospects for the traditional democratic socialist left are bleak. There is even speculation that the far right Marine Le Pen could win the French presidency next year.

Neoliberalism is dying, and the radical left and the far right are the only contenders to bring about another system, observed Alternative Nobel Prize winner and sociology professor Walden Bello at a recent conference.

“Unfortunately,” he noted, “it is the extreme right that is currently best positioned to take advantage of the global discontent because even before the pandemic, extreme right parties were already opportunistically cherry-picking elements of the anti-neoliberal stands and programmes of the independent left.”

The sudden rise of right wing populism in Bulgaria underlines his analysis and should be a wake-up call for the left.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: The winner of each party in each province for the 2021 Bulgarian parliamentary elections. Author: Emicho’s Avenger, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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