The snap elections that took place on May 12 in Bulgaria left the general public in confusion and despair for the political future of the country. The early results showed a rather unvarying outcome as there was not much change in the profile of the parliament in terms of the parties.
In February many Bulgarian citizens had hit the streets because of general social unease, reflections of the worldwide economic crisis and especially the never-improving-life-standards in Bulgaria. Upon the harsh police intervention, the then-Prime Minister Boyko Borisov had to resign and call early elections on May 12. Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) government was looked down upon by general populace due to many scandals, and the election period after governments resignation did not stop further scandals to dominate the agenda.
The Eavesdropping and fake ballots scandals added to earlier heated discussions, combined with the youth protests of the current politicians brought about a big group of people who could decide on the next government to be and next leaders of the country. The political potential did not actualize itself and the protestors did not translate into a new political movement, let alone any kind of manifestation of demands. As a result, the elections witnessed very low attendance and a perfect stalemate for the next government to be.
Four Parties in the Parliament
For the 42nd term of the Bulgarian Parliament, four parties have managed to pass the threshold and gain representation; Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) 30,5%, Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) 26,61%, Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) 11,29%, the far right ATAKA 7,3%. Former European commissioner Meglena Kuneva’s “Bulgaria for Citizens” movement, although promising before the elections, could not make it to parliament with just a little share of votes below the national threshold. A similar destiny was relevant for Kasim Dal –who left DPS and started a parallel ethnic Turkish movement- allying himself with the former king Simeon Saxe-Cobourg as “Freedom and Dignity” movement.
What does the ballot say?
The biggest message to be derived from election results is the hopelessness and frustration of the Bulgarian electorate. This general feeling of dissatisfaction emerges from the political, economic and social distaste that translates into a worrisome future leaving little hope for individuals. Prior to elections, opinion polls had revealed that voter turnout would be low. Although there were no extra problems on the Election Day, turnout was much lower than expected; not even half of the electorate cast a ballot. This shows that the trust to current political parties is very low. Even the newly founded parties were not able to attract support, but there is one clear message to be understood from this: a properly manifested political movement focusing on the social problems of the society, with new faces of representation from the public can actually convince a large majority and mobilize general public opinion in Bulgaria. Contrary to this message, most political parties have employed long tried-and-failed faces, already known answers to social problems, focused on economic development policies rather than discussing the social tension, talked of institutional integration instead of cultural shifts. As there were no parties involved with the needs of society, election results were left with a big percentage’s support for former system of GERB as lesser of all evils, and twice a majority that were filled with anti-GERB feelings and cast a ballot. As a result, only 39% of the electorate got representation in the parliament, leaving people with a question mark on legitimacy and a potential for coalition of the impossible.
Aside from the legitimacy issues, some international observers’ notifications on over 200 violations during elections have been worrisome. Combined with the low turnout and stalemate of coalition possibilities, GERB has been trying to exploit a way to get election results declared void, and repeat the process.
The Losing Winner GERB
In the previous term GERB had ruled as single party after receiving 39% of the votes in 2009. This time, they lost support of a quarter of their electorate and not only lost hope of achieving single party government but heavily risked any kind of coalition too. Officially the party clarified that they are ready to stay in opposition, however at the same time they proposed forming a minority government. This came right after all other three parties declared openly that they would never get involved with an organ of the former government and GERB had no chance in being welcomed in any kind of coalition.
While GERB accepts congratulations and poses the image of a winning party and boasts about being the only party that came first consecutively since democratization of Bulgaria, they do not seem to be convincing the general populace about supporting a second GERB government. Except for the recent scandals, unplanned privatizations and reconstruction of the whole country after EU accession seems to have upset a few Bulgarians who might not want to see their country change image so rapidly no matter how troublesome the socialist history might have been before. GERB, thus, had been targeted by those who feel proud of Bulgarian history at any time, and want to preserve the cultural and historical entities stored. While the number of citizens who feel that the national populace is being treated with lesser value compared to ambitious plans of making Bulgaria a strong part of global economics, there is still a considerable majority who wish to see this trend continue and eventually support GERB for completion of this policy.
Socialist Reaction Votes
The Bulgarian socialists having confronted GERB policies the last four years had a great chance in turning the reactionary votes into support for BSP’s future government plans. Yet the BSP unable to sustain an election campaign that reflected upon the shortcomings of GERB rule and give a through answer to questions raised by Bulgarian opposition, could not gain enough reactionary support to secure themselves a government alone or with a possible coalition partner. Although the government of experts idea receives support in the parliament now, it is far from being the actual cure to problems of Bulgaria at the moment. While there have been major demonstrations and rallies that cried out all the issues that BSP could have exploited from the streets, turning a deaf ear to protestors BSP continued with the tried-and-failed methods only to make little gains from this big potential.
It was important to renew some names, titles and give hope to future of Bulgaria, reflect the general discontent of youth and give them hope. Yet BSP as of after the elections can be declared the second biggest losing party, being unable to meet the needs of the country no matter how they can form an “experts’ government”. While a stronger BSP could have formed a government much easier, now they have to depend on the support of far right too; which will draw much suspicion to social democratic entity of the party.
Rights and Freedoms on the Lose
Throughout 1990s when the Balkans were dominated by ethnic tension and violence, Bulgarian ethnic minorities enjoyed a time of stability following the culturocide attempts that resulted in the pogrom of 1989 when mainly Turkish-origin hundreds of thousands of people fled the country in the hopes of preserving their names, traditions and dignity. The DPS, during the democratization and transformation contributed a lot to the country’s cultural and political wealth, and has made significant gains until its own liberal system ossified and stopped being a platform of opportunity to people with new ideas any more. Although DPS got through the elections with minor losses, it actually means a lot in terms of its supporters. Compared to previous term, they have received not only lower support but also fewer votes from the ethnic Turkish minority too.
While a second Turkish party led by Kasim Dal had a big influence on DPS’s losses, it was the DPS itself that caused this to happen most of all. The long time ruler Ahmet Dogan’s redundant stay in his position, no matter how good a job one might do, gives out a clear message that inner-party democracy is not welcome in that institution. This being perceived by looking at the non-changing atmosphere, was followed by an unsuccessful murder-attempt against him. Of course his contributions did not value nothing, but prolonged occupation of a position harms the institution and results in losses in support.
Kasim Dal’s movement challenged the DPS and stole some votes from them. Bringing ethnic and identity politics to a different level, with support of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, Kasim Dal initiated a change in Bulgarian ethnic politics in a very indirect manner. It could only be expected for DPS to develop a more through and concrete election strategy to compete with the latter movement now.
A second major loss for DPS has been the foreign votes. In the previous elections DPS had gathered almost two thirds of the votes cast outside of Bulgaria; this time they have hardly got half of the votes. When one considers the Turkish-Bulgarians living outside of the country after 1989, it should have been much easier for DPS to mobilize them and gain their support. However, the campaigning process not going as expected and DPS not offering any kind of improvement to them, people simply did not care to cast a ballot. The implications of this electoral behavior could either be that DPS could not reach out to their most loyal supporters, or that the Bulgarian electorate in general gives out a clear message that they want to see real change of political traditions in the country, including DPS.
Meltdown for ATAKA
The far right movement ATAKA managed to gain an impossibly position in the parliament. While they have lost a significant number of votes and support share, ATAKA managed to become part of a perfect stalemate for the parliament and take over the role of kingmaker. As the coalition possibilities have been in a deadlock and any possibility must include support of ATAKA. In the last four years, GERB had benefited from the silent support of ATAKA but recently this bond has been broken and they have also declared that GERB is no more welcome as rulers in Bulgaria. Volen Siderov, at his first speech at the parliament upon his oath threatened both GERB and BSP that their worst nightmare is yet to begin (while completely ignoring the ethnic Turkish party as they perceive DPS as unconstitutional).
As ATAKA has benefited the populist gains in public support, adopting the global neo-nazi trends and making use of them, they have now a very ideal position as a far right movement in the parliament. Although politically they might look bright, internally the party is suffering from a deadlock too. Siderov’s charisma in the party shading the other MPs and officials, their adoption of regular behaviors as other parties’ politicians contrary to earlier claims of being absolutely honest, not being able to do anything progressive so far and showing silent support to GERB in years before caused ATAKA to lose votes. When all else failed, they resorted to most-fruitful far right tactic of “Turks are coming” cry, which also did not transfer many votes towards ATAKA this time. As far right supporters usually do not evaluate election results through the vote share but the number of “loyal” votes, this time ATAKA seems to have lost support from the loyal subjects.
The Election Threshold Victims
Due to turnout being so low and such low representation of popular views in the parliament, there are still legitimacy discussions going on about the May 12 elections. For many, this representation should not be considered as legitimate nor official, as there is almost a million votes left outside of the parliament without any kind of representation.
If there was a possibility of re-make for the elections, this time Kuneva and Dal would have had a chance to get into the parliament, and even be part of a coalition. No matter how much contested, GERB still considers possibility of making gains and a probably road to government in an election make over.
As the representation and legitimacy debates have been opened again, there are views dwelling on the possibility of lowering the 4% election threshold. There could also be made an improvement in terms of legitimacy, for cases when a big part of the electorate is left without any representation in the parliament. In such elections like this one, when more than half of the country did not vote and 25% of the voters were left without any party in the parliament, let alone not being in favor of other parties, the election threshold could be lowered to guarantee representation of 90% of the voters and include other parties, different voices and opinions in a more democratic environment.
If such a strategy were to be applied to current election results, there would be six more parties –three of them newly founded- in the parliament today. This would both be more representative, and also sustain the system’s endurance against single party dominance of the already fragile atmosphere, or inclusion of extremist views in mainstream. It would also suppress the system to turn into a superconservative blackhole of political traditions with several parties dominating the democratic sphere.
At first glance possible coalition partners of right and left seem to be at a perfect balance with 120 MPs each. However one side needs at least one more MP to support a probably government. As all other parties have declared GERB as the “sell out” for Bulgaria, they have closed and locked all doors of GERB inclusion in the next government. This leaves the BSP as the main contributor to government politics. Their natural allies the DPS showing support to a possible BSP coalition needs the support of far right ATAKA, which is not impossible but very hard to sustain. While the far right declares DPS as unconstitutional and accuse them of treason, there seems to be more grief towards GERB and it unites these three parties in the idea of a technocratic government.
ATAKA, being the kingmaker of this stalemate, receives both a big advantage alongside holding a risk of losing support from their voters, will have to decide carefully whom and how to support. They have already made it clear that they would vote in favor of any government that would prioritize Bulgaria and national economy contrary to GERB’s policy of prioritizing the multinational corporations operating in the country.
ATAKA’s conscious abstention from voting on the parliament speaker vote had angered GERB and benefited BSP by lowering the needed 121 votes to succeed to 109, which was already sustained with the DPS votes. By a clever move of not opposing –yet not openly supporting- the ATAKA managed to anger GERB and EPP, and prevented chaotic debates dominate the first day of new parliament. If they continue in this manner, the far right movement might actually benefit from shifting their public image in the eyes of regular Bulgarian nationalists and be perceived as a mainstream nationalist party rather than a neo-nazi movement. After all, they did not act as an anti-system party but rather democratically in the first days of the new parliamentary sessions.
Yet it is an obvious fact that the current parliament and possible government formations will not be a direct answer to Bulgaria’s long-standing problems. If the political parties do not question their stands from their roots, it will not be possible to revitalize Bulgarian politics and mobilize masses. Most of the present politicians being already present for over a decade in Bulgarian politics, parties need to realize the fact that they have to shake their traditions from the roots and bring about new policies, new strategies, new faces and new solutions to decades old problems. Otherwise, the protests that shook GERB off of the government in February, can topple any other government that already lacks support of the majority in the country.