Sunday’s snap elections in Bulgaria confirmed the demise of the kleptocratic GERB party’s rule, but also showed the difficulties that a scattered opposition will face in forming any stable alternative majority. A party of the center-right, GERB will be remembered for its leader Boyko Borissov’s thuggish behavior, its use of the state apparatus to help its corporate associates, its subservience to the West — but also the dire austerity and rampant inequalities over which it has presided.
Prime minister until the previous general election, which took place only three months ago, in this weekend’s contest Borissov and his party came in second with 23.5 percent, marginally edged out by There is Such a People (ITN; 24 percent), a celebrity-centered party which claims to uphold “direct democracy.” Worse was the score of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which drew 13.4 percent support, a historic low. Other forces to enter parliament included the center-right Democratic Bulgaria (DB) coalition, the protest movement Stand Up! Mafia, Get Out! (ISMV); and the DPS, a party of economic liberals claiming to represent Bulgarian Muslims.
Forming a government out of this fragmented picture will be difficult. ITN, DB, and ISMV pose as the only “authentic protest parties,” and while their combined vote is not enough for a majority, they are unwilling to cooperate with the more established BSP or DPS. Bulgaria thus again faces a situation like after the previous vote in April, when ITN bet on forcing new elections, hoping that it could finally achieve a majority. In the end, on Sunday the party did improve its score, but it is far from being able to form a government on its own.
On Monday, ITN proposed to create a minority administration, without any negotiations with the opposition. This party likes to present itself as standing for new ideas and new people, although the reality is less impressive. ITN put forward Nikolay Vassilev, an investment banker, as its prime minister, along with a cabinet made up of a swarm of lobbyists for big capital and ultraneoliberal yuppies.
In the run-up to the vote, ITN had further built on its already neoliberal program, as it called for the privatization of the highways and the last remaining public bank. In its plan for a minority administration, the party decided against having an environmental minister, but for minister of culture has proposed a copyright monopolist notorious for stealing from Bulgarian musicians and prosecuting small businesses who dare to listen to public radio without paying her royalties.
ITN is new in some regards: it spiced up its proposals with eccentric ideas of sending the first Macedonian into space, via NASA. But for all the talk of novelty, arch-privatizer Vassilev is a former minister who held office in the 2000s, backed by the same defunct NDSV party in which Borissov began his own career. In 2001, NDSV used populist rhetoric to promote extreme neoliberal reforms, presented as the expression of nonpartisan “expertise.” In government since 2009, Borissov adopted this same blend of neoliberal technocracy and populism, and now ITN is again offering the same — though this time as a farce, given that the party has under a quarter of the total vote, far from enough to enact its program.
Nonetheless, this Sunday’s election really was a severe defeat for Borissov’s GERB, which is now isolated both domestically and internationally. Its former coalition partners on the far right failed to meet the 4 percent threshold to enter parliament, just as in April. And, perhaps more importantly, Borissov is rapidly losing his Western allies.
In June, the US Treasury used the Magnitsky Act to sanction high-profile Bulgarians close to Borissov’s regime (or perceived to be so). Moreover, Herro Mustafa, the US ambassador in Sofia, circulated around the ministers of the current caretaker government — appointed by president Rumen Radev, an ardent rival of Borissov’s — in order to praise their work. During the Three Seas Initiative, a regional summit held in Sofia earlier in July, Joe Biden thanked both Radev and the caretaker government’s economy minister in a video address, a move understood as further proof of Washington’s change of heart toward GERB.
Such open backing for the opposition arrived only prior to this latest set of snap elections. This could be explained in terms of Biden trying to play an active interventionist role in international politics, though it seems more likely the real reason is GERB’s domestic isolation, particularly after mass protests last year.
The Biden administration is well aware of Borissov’s background, probably more so even than the wider Bulgarian public. US embassy cables, leaked in late 2010, addressed his criminal involvement, when he served as general secretary of the Interior Ministry, even before GERB was founded in 2009. The embassy in Sofia claimed he was involved in “criminal deals,” “major traffic in methamphetamines,” and had close ties with local mafia leaders.
The leaks mentioned “his common-law wife, Tsvetelina Borislavova, [who] manages a large Bulgarian bank that has been accused of laundering money for organized criminal groups, as well as for Borisov’s own illegal transactions.” According to the cables and the Berlin-based Tageszeitung, CIA intelligence “substantiates these allegations.”
GERB’s EU partners, especially the conservative European People’s Party, have been more shy than the Biden administration in taking a critical stance against Borissov. This led the mainstream Western press to criticize them for their complicity with the criminal elite that has governed Bulgaria for over a decade.
The timidity of European conservatives is understandable, especially since German Christian-Democrats actually helped to create GERB. In a desperate attempt to boost his international legitimacy, Borissov met with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the campaign, with each congratulating the other for protecting the EU from refugees. This move backfired domestically, as Erdoğan is extremely unpopular in Bulgaria, except with small sections of the Muslim minority.
The other Bulgarian politician who met with the Turkish president during the campaign was DPS’s leader Mustafa Karadayi. DPS is widely hated in Bulgaria, partly on nationalist grounds but mostly because of its open association with oligarchs such as the media mogul Delyan Peevski, a former DPS parliamentarian, who was also sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act. Peevski’s media empire has explicitly stood in defense of Borissov.
Some speculated that Borissov’s visit was an attempt to appeal to the DPS and secure a potential coalition with the party. This was rather a pathetic move, and not only because the combined vote for GERB and DPS is far short of a majority. As cynical as it might be Karadayi’s Muslim-oriented party can hardly sell open cooperation with Borissov, a long-term partner of the far right, to its own electorate.
Others speculated that the former prime minister is looking for asylum, though it seems more likely it was purely an act of desperation. Another symptom of GERB’s agony is its cynical strategy to portray its opponents as “just as bad” — in the words of prominent GERB politician Daniel Mitov, the opposition are “simply substituting one corruption scheme with another.”
This still raises of the question of how come, even though GERB is past the point of no return, the opposition finds it so hard to form a stable government. This may seem especially odd considering that the spirit of practically all political programs is almost identical: “Business First!” At the same time, they do seem to have some irreconcilable differences.
Centered on famous musician and TV personality Slavi Trifonov, There is Such People (ITN) emphasizes direct democracy and wields a strong “anti-party” rhetoric. It promises to radically cut public subsidies for political parties, halve the number of MPs, and introduce a majoritarian system in place of the current proportional one. The introduction of a majoritarian system was promoted as “voting for a person, not a party” — a curious paradox, since few Bulgarians could name anyone from this party apart from Trifonov and a few of the screenwriters from his show. And this time, Trifonov proposed a possible prime minister only after the elections.
The smaller opposition forces also disagree with a majoritarian system as it favors the biggest parties alone, in the manner of the United States and UK political systems. In many ways, ITN is similar to other celebrity-centric parties: in an interview for the French daily Le Monde, Trifonov compared himself to Italy’s Beppe Grillo, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, and Donald Trump, adding that his favorite politicians are Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Emmanuel Macron.
The anti-mafia ISMV’s leader Maya Manolova is a prominent former Socialist and is somewhat more “social” in her call to address extreme inequalities. However, she rarely makes concrete proposals, preferring to stage media scandals. Her movement is also contradictory, consisting of other former Bulgarian Socialist Party figures posing as untainted by the “status quo” in the manner of that party, along with liberals who stand for entrepreneurial values.
Democratic Bulgaria, a coalition between the conservative DSB, the liberal Yes, Bulgaria!, and the Green Моvement, is no less incongruous. Its leader Hristo Ivanov, himself briefly a GERB minister, adopted a successful rhetorical style that has appeal beyond the urban upper-middle classes and business elites by using more populist and, at times, patriotic language against the so-called “Turkish” DPS party. Many within the DB still believe there is a secret communist danger lurking in Bulgaria, which needs to be fought. Their mantra is “judicial reform” — which will supposedly solve all social ills — while they try not to talk as much of their neoliberal agenda.
Georgi Ganev, a high-ranking economic expert in DB, is a libertarian who believes that the state should wither away and that all welfare is an instance of “corruption.” The smaller Greens do not have a clear economic agenda, either, but will surely clash with their partners on several concrete points. These include the potential liberalization of gas fracking and GM crops (which are currently banned) or transnational trade and investor protection deals in the spirit of TTIP or CETA, which they campaign against. Both DSB and Yes, Bulgaria! are strongly in favor of such free-marketeer measures. But the biggest problem this coalition faces is its elitism. They have already started to attack ITN on the grounds that the popular music played by Trifonov is too “working-class” for the taste of elites from central Sofia.
The nominally socialist BSP appears to be not much less isolated than GERB: each of the newer forces tend to call it a “party of the status quo.” This, even though the current configuration in parliament does not grant the self-styled “anti-status quo parties” the votes to form a government without BSP’s backing. At the same time BSP’s electoral support is constantly falling, a result of current leader Kornelia Ninova’s shift toward the so-called “conservative left.” Ninova was elected as party chairperson in 2016, displacing the more left-wing Mihail Mikov, since which point she has marginalized both liberal and leftist tendencies within the party and that claimed all internal opposition are “traitors.”
During her leadership, it has became famous for adopting a nationalist language and campaigning against so-called “gender ideology.” In truth, the “conservative left” essentially means right-wing identity politics, attacks on gender equality and minority rights while turning a blind eye toward the exploitation of the working class. This has only fed the party’s collapsing support: while in every previous election from 1989 to 2017 the BSP was always in either first or second place, this time it barely even beat Democratic Bulgaria to third. Ninova, however, insists that she is not considering resigning.
Referring to a famous Bulgarian translation of a nineteenth-century Russian fable, some have compared the heterogenous anti-GERB opposition to an eagle, a crab, and a pike all pulling in different directions in their futile efforts to move a cart. Even if the ITN, DB, and ISMV are able to form a government — as unlikely as it is — it is unclear how long it can last.
The cliché, often raised against the Left, that they know what they are against without a clear idea of what they are for, is very valid for the opposition against GERB today. Moreover, none of the parties have made any serious proposals to reform the economic model that makes Bulgaria the poorest EU member state. This partly explains the historically low turnout rate (estimated as low as 38 percent) and the low levels of politicization within society, even at a time when political elites are highly polarized and threatening each other with prison. And, indeed, some economic and political elites might end up there.
The caretaker government appointed by President Radev has started a process of exposing GERB’s corruption and dislodging economic elites close to GERB, using the Magnitsky Act sanctions as a pretext. If the new parliament can replace Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev, currently close to GERB, it is likely there will be a series of trials against GERB associates. Political and economic elites have a lot to lose, but they have not proposed any potential gains for the majority, such as could generate any popular enthusiasm for their elite games.
In a famous Bulgarian proverb, “When two argue, a third wins.” In this case, the “third” is President Radev. Initially elected with BSP support, he is today the most popular Bulgarian politician. The caretaker cabinet he appointed successfully appealed to all alleged “protest parties,” as well as to the BSP.
Radev is clearly a more balanced figure, compared to the ITN’s neoliberal experimentation and bizarre dreams of Macedonians in space, but his positions remain within the “business first” mainstream. For the Left, the urgent task is to start to build an alternative, not dominated by the endless rollout of neoliberal dogma in the guise of novelty.