Politics After the Political

Bulgaria’s recent elections show how narrow the country’s political options have become.

Boyko Borissov in 2015. European People's Party / Flickr

For the past ten years, no government in Bulgaria has lasted its full four-year term. Between 2013 and 2017 alone, the country had three caretaker governments.

This apparent instability actually masks a more fundamental stability: the reigning technocratic consensus. Unaware of the complete disappearance of political difference in Bulgaria, Western pundits tend to oversimplify the nation’s politics. For example, the Washington Post described this week’s election as the victory of the pro-Europe party over the pro-Russia party, while the Wall Street Journal worried whether Putin had rigged another election.

This evacuation of politics breeds apathy among voters, evident in steadily declining turnout, and sparks the proliferation of impassioned, supposedly radical, far-right parties. These groups purport to challenge the reigning centrist consensus, but they instead precipitate a general rightward shift as the mainstream tries to neutralize the challenge by co-opting its rhetoric and platform.

Before turning to the election’s results, I will reconstruct how sharp political distinctions in Bulgaria all but disappeared, then describe the terrain on which the current post-political consensus has settled.

Today, pro-business parties populate virtually the entire political spectrum. Because they peddle near-identical platitudes, however, they ramp up the differences rooted in apolitical domains — chief among them morality — and offer the same policies with superficial changes. For example, they argue over what constitutes an authentic anticorruption platform, or they quarrel over who will build a taller wall on the Turkish border, buying into the patriotic hard line rather than debating the need for such idiotic measures in the first place.

From the Center to the Right

In the decade after the fall of the Berlin wall, three parties dominated Bulgarian political life: the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP, the heir of the Communist Party), the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS, the anticommunist opposition), and the Movement for Rights and Liberties (DPS, which arose from Bulgarian-Turkish activism against the repressions these citizens faced from the Communist Party in the late 1980s).

This status quo came to an abrupt end in 2001 with the surprise return of Simeon II Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the heir to the Bulgarian throne, whose family had been exiled in 1946. Simeon’s party, the National Movement for Stability and Progress (NDSV) rode the wave of discontent engendered by the so-called “unpopular measures” of the 1990s, which consisted of shock therapy and privatization. The ex-monarch won a sweeping electoral victory that sent the Right into a tailspin that it is still trying to recover from.

The changes resulting from the NDSV regime are now deeply etched in Bulgarian politics. First, it destroyed the two-party model, in which the BSP and SDS alternated in power with support from the DPS. Simeon II’s party refocused the entire political spectrum on the center. At the same time, he made politics the domain of morality. His party’s major slogan was “new morality in politics,” offered as a remedy for the corrupt privatization process.

Further, Simeon II’s legitimacy rested on a combination of his aristocratic charisma and his team of business-savvy technocrats. Bulgarian yuppies from Wall Street, the World Bank, and similar organizations joined his cabinet, paving the way for the now unbreakable trend of expert-led governance. Finally, armed with this “ideology-free” ideology, the NDSV embarked on one of the most comprehensive phases of privatization, auctioning off state-owned utilities at fire-sale prices and introducing new public management principles into the state’s operations.

The NDSV enjoyed a comfortable parliamentary majority for only four years; the ex-czar’s charismatic aura had faded by the time the next elections arrived. Soon after, it disappeared, and no one seemed to notice — an ironic end to the party’s surprising entry into national politics. Regardless, all of the NDSV’s innovations outlived it, especially the pragmatic and consensual turn in politics.

The BSP’s evolution makes these changes most visible. In 2005, as Simeon II’s star was waning, the BSP emerged victorious but without a majority. It formed a government with the NDSV and the DPS.

That year, the first far-right party, Attack, entered parliament. Its shock result of 8.9 percent launched countless discussions about “the threat of populism.” Attack ran on an anti-Islamic, anti-Turkish, and antisemitic nationalist platform; unsurprisingly, it focused most of its hostility on the DPS. Eventually, Attack’s singular obsession with the DPS spread to the other parties, helping tilt the neoliberal centrist consensus to the right.

This BSP-NDSV-DPS coalition government coincided with Bulgaria’s European Union membership in 2007, but will be remembered for introducing a 10 percent flat tax and ruthlessly suppressing the largest teacher strike in recent history. It also introduced delegated school budgets, a reform responsible for the closure of countless schools in poor and sparsely populated regions of the country.

Morality, Reloaded

The current winner, the center-right Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), was founded in 2006 with the express purpose of consolidating the Right after the SDS’s crushing humiliation and the NDSV’s own rapid implosion. The strongman charisma of GERB’s leader Boyko Borissov fuels this party. Before his political career took off in 2001 as NDSV secretary of the interior, he ran a private security business.

Borissov’s singular innovation occurred during his term as secretary, during which he turned the arrests of organized crime bosses into media spectacles. He quipped, “We catch them [the bosses], but the judges set them free,” shifting attention away from privatization and toward anticorruption and judicial reform. We can interpret this judicial turn as a necessary phase after privatization: when everything has been transferred to capitalists’ hands, the state needs to establish a strong legal framework to secure that property.

The GERB assumed power in 2009. Its anticommunist and anti-Turkish platform rode on the sentiments Attack produced, but this strategy didn’t reveal any deeply held anticommunist or anti-Turkish sentiments. Rather, it played on received right-wing wisdom that called the previous BSP-DPS government “communists,” ignoring the fact that they had introduced some of the most radical neoliberal policies. Borissov even peddled a conspiracy theory that Turks were trying to assassinate him.

Carrying the emphasis on anticorruption over from the NDSV, Borissov inherited and radicalized the ex-czar’s anti-political line. In 2009, Borissov appointed ten non-party affiliated experts as ministers to a cabinet of seventeen. A chief World Bank economic adviser and economics professor at Harvard assumed the post of minister of finance, and the head of the NGO Transparency International Bulgaria became the minister of justice.

Once in power, the GERB enforced draconian austerity measures that brought down the EU-mandated budget deficit of 3 percent to 1 percent by making ferocious cuts in education, culture, and health-care spending.

None of this helped the GERB govern stably. Its first mandate ended prematurely in 2013 when Borissov resigned following mass anti-austerity protests, public self-immolations, and clashes with the police. The demonstrations, which erupted over prohibitively high utility bills, called on the government to renationalize the energy providers that the NDSV had sold off.

Regardless, he won the next year’s interim elections and formed a government (2014–16) propped up by the far-right Patriotic Front and the liberal Reform Bloc. This coalition imploded when the prime minister tied the future of his cabinet to the presidential elections, which his party lost to the BSP.

If Simeon II created the environment where post-political administrations delivered by “moral experts” crushed the left-right divide, Borissov tilted this consensus in the direction of anticorruption and judicial reform, which now set the boundaries of the possible for all parties.

New parties are established with one express purpose — to transplant “the Romanian model” in Bulgaria. They criticize the GERB for having failed to make sufficient judiciary reforms. Even though these new-right parties oppose Borissov, they style themselves as more authentic versions of him.

Gradually, Attack (and its numerous splinter groups, like the Patriotic Front, which promised to establish concentration camps for the Roma) lent the post-political, legalist consensus a racist-nationalist clout, which pushed the entire moralistic cluster further to the right. To gauge the degree of its success, it suffices to mention that even the DPS — once vocally critical of Attack’s Islamophobic and anti-Roma message — adopted a patriotic platform that stressed the issues of national consciousness and the “Europe of nations.”

Elections 2017

This week’s elections show how narrow the political spectrum in Bulgaria has become, leaving most issues that affect voters completely off the table.

Five parties secured seats in the 240-seat parliament: the GERB, with 32.65 percent and ninety-five seats; the BSP, with 27.2 percent and eighty seats; the far-right coalition of the United Patriots (OP), comprised of Attack and its spin-offs, with 9.7 percent and twenty-seven seats; the liberal DPS just behind, with 8.99 percent and twenty-six seats; and the new, far-right VOLYA (“Will”) with 4.15 percent, amounting to twelve seats.

The big surprises came from the BSP, which doubled its 2014 results, and from the three self-styled middle-class anticorruption parties, none of which secured any seats.

Despite this pluralism, all five parties agree on enacting pro-market reforms, improving national security, fighting corruption, and other aspects of the NDSV’s “pragmatic” turn.

Even social policy appears in pro-business guise. For example, the BSP promised a “welfare state that will leave no one behind” and defines “the people” as “the active, innovative, entrepreneurial, and educated.” It has proposed increasing child support payments to €150 million annually. However, this measure will only benefit working parents. Unemployed parents are thus doubly punished: first by not working and then by having a crucial lifeline for their families viciously withdrawn.

The other parties similarly reserve social security programs for the ever-narrowing category of the “deserving poor,” a group that almost always excludes the Roma minority, who suffer from structural racism in nearly every sphere of economic and political life.

For example, one such measure, developed by the GERB’s far-right coalition partner but now taken up by everyone, calls for limiting child support payments to families with three or more children. Why would a political class in a country that has hemorrhaged over two million people since 1989 and suffered one of the most severe demographic catastrophes in Europe punish the few people who have more than three children? This confusion immediately disappears when we introduce the racial variable: it is (wrongly) assumed that only Roma and Turkish people have large families.

BSP has also jumped on the far-right bandwagon after ousting its left wing. It has also invited overt racists to join its lists, including professor Ivo Hristov, who has repeatedly likened the Roma to “microbes” and “viruses” and takes strong anti-immigration stances.

While the parties carefully delimit the class of deserving welfare recipients, they are far more open when it comes to their stimulus packages for corporations, entrepreneurs, and the export sector. The BSP announced it will set aside more than €1.3 billion in funds to support business — nearly ten times the amount promised to working parents. All this spending, BSP piously assures us, will not go over the Stability Pact–mandated 3 percent deficit cap.

Тhe collective rightward shift finds expression in the hysteria, fanned by the mass media, over votes coming from Turkey. In the late 1980s, the socialist regime purged some 360,000 Bulgarian Turks. Half returned, but those still in Turkey maintain connections with the country and vote regularly for the DPS.

In 2016, the hostilities toward the DPS and its so-called Turkish vote broke new ground when the Patriotic Front drafted a bill that would make it much harder for Bulgarian citizens abroad to participate in elections. Originally decried as a civil rights violation, the bill today finds support even from the liberal Reform Bloc, which is urging the authorities to reconsider opening any polling stations in Turkey.

This year, the tired racist rhetoric turned into direct action: days before the elections, the United Patriots blocked the Turkish border in order to prevent so-called electoral tourism. Adding insult to injury, the Central Electoral Commission drew on the rich Jim Crow tradition and ordered international polling stations to ask voters to fill out a declaration in Bulgarian and sign it before the registrar. This measure was openly discussed as an educational requirement for voting because it is assumed that Bulgarian Turks living in Turkey cannot write in Bulgarian. Similarly, the Reform Bloc recently justified replacing paper ballots with machine voting because it will supposedly weed out the presumably ignorant Roma people.

These positions make the division between the legitimate and the far right increasingly porous, even elusive.

Liberal Populism?

This convergence has “pollinated” supposedly far-right parties as well. A cursory glance at the platforms of the parties designated “populist” or “far right” reveals how much they share with the liberal mainstream, at least in economic matters.

For example, VOLYA — a new populist party led by an oil and drugstore entrepreneur who branded himself “the Bulgarian Trump” — wants to submit the state-run National Health Fund (NHF) to market reforms, but the nominally left Alternative for Bulgarian Renaissance (ABV, a BSP splinter group that formed in 2014), the Reform Bloc, the United Patriots, and the GERB also support the measure.

The United Patriots want to tie child support benefits to education and employment, and the ABV and the Reform Bloc agree. Unlike the French National Front, which raids the social issues the centrist left abandoned, the Bulgarian far right offers capital-friendly policies, including a “reduction of the administrative burden” for businesses. These measures are identical to those offered by the liberal parties.

The Patriots support the flat tax rate for businesses but want to introduce progressive taxation for labor — just like the nominally left-wing ABV. Meanwhile, the latter outdoes even the far right in proposing to reintroduce compulsory labor-army conscription for the Roma. And it goes without saying that parties across the board all promise to align higher education with “the needs of the market.”

To confer the monotony in the domain of political ideas, I have prepared a table with select issues and the positions of the main competitors.

The main parties largely agree on all issues. Thus, debate is dominated by personal attacks and arguments over the best ways to execute the same initiatives, such as who will implement the most “Romanian” anticorruption program.

Of course, this is not a local peculiarity. Rather, Bulgaria has aligned with the global turn to anticorruption, which even liberal intellectuals like Ivan Krastev admit constitutes “ the re-designed policies of the Washington consensus.” Because it defines corruption as an impediment to economic development, anticorruption rhetoric serves as a vehicle for free-market reforms: it will save the market from external meddling, especially of the “political” variety.

Meanwhile, issues like the currency board — in place for twenty years — which ensures Bulgarian competitiveness through insultingly low wages, brutal austerity, and spiraling foreign debt, remain outside of the purview of the political class.

To be fair, the parties do disagree on some things. For example, the Right considers the BSP’s and ABV’s plans for state enterprising funds “leftist” because the state will oversee them. The nominal Left defends state intervention in the economy as a leftist measure, while the Right opposes it on the grounds that it will breed corruption. Put differently, even when they fight, the parties do so with the shared assumption that Left equals the state, regardless of whether the state intervenes in the economy to build daycare centers or business incubators. This is the libertarian definition of left, only differently appraised by the disputants: it totally lacks class perspective.

As I write this, the largest Roma and Turkish township in the country suffers from a smallpox outbreak; two workers lost their lives in an industrial accident; workers in a shoe factory walked off demanding wages that have been withheld for months; and underpaid miners have declared a hunger strike. None of the social problems that plague “the European Union’s poorest country” found their way onto the list of political options these elections.

The only good news is that the far right’s results have been constant, hovering around 8 or 9 percent. There seems to be a stable number of voters who choose Attack and its offshoots, despite the fact their issues dominate the entire media landscape.

The other parties adopt their agenda, then, not because there is mass demand but because it is safer to talk about “Turkish votes” and “Syrian threats” than to address the gaping inequalities that plague the country.