Fragility in the making

Bulgarians go to polls on Sunday. Instead of enhancing the fledgling democracy, the elections have increased feelings of uncertainty concerning Bulgaria?s democratic future

What can be worse for a country than a government that doesn’t govern, politicians who are not accountable and an economic crisis that is causing havoc? Well, more of the above.

The Bulgarian national elections will take place on July 5, and the picture of the political landscape is bleak. According to recent polls, six to eight parties will pass the four-percent constitutional threshold, and the biggest of them -Sofia’s mayor Boyko Borissov GERB – is rated at only 34 percent at best. Forming a coalition in such a crooked political scene will be a sluggish and tricky process, with the possible outcome of new elections in the fall.

The majority of the voters think that the current government has to go. The notorious three-part coalition, consisting of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP, the former communists), the National Movement for Stability and Prosperity (NDSV, the party of former King and prime minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS, the party of ethnic Turks), ends its mandate at a historic low point. For the first time in EU’s history a member state was denied access to all its EU funds, and received an unparalleled requested to share its governing business with the European Commission on a quasi-protectorate basis. No wonder BSP, although second largest in the polls, is projected to get only 18 percent, and NDSV hardly manages to trouble the statisticians.

The only stodgy survivor is DPS, the Turkish ethnic party that became notorious by its long-standing – and ambivalent – participation in several governments.  The fact that DPS functions less like a party and much more as a feudal entity has long been visible- and has proved to be efficient in mobilising its electorate again and again, despite of the government’s weak performance. “I am the power instrument, who redistributes the finances in the country”, said Ahmed Dogan, the DPS’s leader. Indeed, Dogan’s personal responsibility for not only his party’s finances but also for regional business development and fiscal flows in local areas has become the symbol of political efficiency. But it is also the emblem of clientelism and corruption. Fiddling with your second home allowance as deductable expense would hardly lead to cabinet reshuffling in Bulgaria.

To be preferable to this mess, all an alternative government would need is the minimal degree of integrity and governance. But the current level of political fragmentation gives grim reason for concern. The biggest opposition party, GERB emerged in 2005 out of Mr. Borissov’s appeal as ‘a man of order’. Craving a sense of justice, security, and the rule of law in a country that has become a byword for crime and corruption, Bulgarians saw in Borissov – at that time Secretary General of the Interior ministry – the strong figure who would oust the ruling elite. “The quintessential poacher turned gamekeeper, he has inside knowledge of the criminalisation of Bulgaria,” wrote Misha Glenny in his 2008 book McMafia. Borissov is still popular because of his anti-elitist language and the assurance he relays that he is capable of fighting the criminals who are capturing the state.

So far, Borissov has kept his promise and has avoided inviting old, well-known faces into his future government team. Experts currently working at the World Bank, young entrepreneurs and political activists participated in coining the party’s program. Further governing potential can come from GERB’s smaller coalition partners.

The main candidates for Mr. Borissov’s governing coalition are the center-right parties that were the driving force in Bulgaria’s transition in the 1990s and that had persuaded the West that Bulgaria was good enough: ‘we are one of you’. Carrying the burden of social turbulences and the Bulgarian population’s tiredness from the constant crises it perceives to live, the Blue Coalition (as the heirs of United Democratic Forces call themselves now) shares the fate of most East-European reformists and stagnates around 8 percent of the electorate. Apart from ultra-nationalist Ataka and Lider – the energy mogul Hristo Kovachki’s party (who threatened his employees that he would cut jobs if he is not elected), there is not much to add to the Bulgarian voter buffet.

It seems unlikely that 5 July will bring an end to Bulgaria’s political malaise unless GERB manages to mobilise unexpectedly big portion of its ‘soft’ periphery. An unclear mandate and difficulties around forming a government can result in elections as early as this fall. As the global economic downturn is expected to hit Bulgaria the hardest in October-November, the situation looks crisis-prone. Growing unemployment, rapidly declining foreign direct investment and limited room for maneuver due to the euro peg constitute the background against which the BSP-led government is performing generous pre-election spending. All this is of course diminishing Bulgaria’s budget surplus, making it more and more difficult for Bulgaria to weather the financial crisis storm.

Bulgaria’s perpetual crisis of finding a responsible government is crippling the country. This round is compounded with the possibility of a deadlock and the resulting early elections and eight-month halt in the administrative machine. There could not be a worse moment for a political standoff for a country on the brink.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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