Bulgaria after the European Elections: Tectonic Shifts Under Way?
The first reactions to results of May 25's European elections in Bulgaria looked like a part of a literature workshop in a town that could be anywhere around the world. Let's have a single phrase taken out of it as an example:
"Yesterday I said to my mother: I am heading for my slaughter, you will take a bottle of wine and candy to give neighbors a treat. I am going to the elections with my white shirt on."
You might wonder whom these words belonged to. They resonated throughout Sofia's half-empty International Press Center and showed that, at the same time while Europe was trying to deal with the shock of an unprecedented far-right success (described by some as an earthquake), Bulgaria was heading for quite another problem.
Most of the journalists who had decided to attend the political parties' press conferences called after initial results did find the comment to be of some amusement. But most of them just had their attention nailed to a TV screen image displaying Nikolay Barekov, the journalist-turned-politician who used the almost epic sentence above to shed some light on how tough a challenge he was facing by standing at this year's elections for the European Parliament.
Media interest in Barekov, which had been quite acute during the election campaign, showed yet another surge when first exit poll estimates were announced at 19:00 Bulgarian time. His movement Bulgaria without Censorship, which led a coalition of parties through the EU vote, came fourth just a year after the former journalist had set up his political organization. Polls also revealed he was only a few percent away from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), the imminent third political power (whatever the elections), and eight or nine from the utterly defeated ruling socialists.
But it was not only dull election statistics that divided opinions in Bulgaria just hours after the election nights. Rather, it was a duller thing that did: the art of dealing with press conferences.
Will anybody talk to the media?
Election winner GERB, former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's center-right opposition, was expected to kick off a “press conference marathon” that usually goes deep into the night; but it didn't. It called off its event, saying it would only make party statements after most ballots had been counted. Barekov's Bulgaria without Censorship echoed GERB's decision - or nearly did, as it announced it would hold "its own" media event at "its own" venue just meters away from the International Press Center at Sofia's National Palace of Culture. His party has reiterated many times it does not respect the current political order and would insistently call for early elections - it has, in fact, been carrying out a permanent election campaign (without any elections being called) across Bulgaria since it emerged as a movement in 2013.
With all those factors in sight, it was hardly surprising that Barekov would use his own headquarters to draw more attention and to underline his basic difference from what he describes as parties of the status quo. But then the panic-stricken Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which had just suffered its worst defeat since 2009 (when GERB came to power), also hinted it might change schedule by canceling its media session. Some TV channels even issued breaking reports which quoted BSP leader Sergey Stanishev as saying he could not hold any event at the Press Center as he had an urgent flight to Brussels at midnight.
These accounts turned out to be false and the Bulgarian Socialist Party did come to the center; but such was the surprise of the BSP's tremendous loss within its own ranks that heightened tension was in the air during Stanishev's statement, mostly during his question-and-answer session afterwards.
When asked whether he would really go to Brussels as “number one” in his party's elections list or whether he would seek his place as EU Commissioner, he sharply retorted that he had responded many times before. The question was repeated five or six times by different media representatives and, unpleasant and irritating as that might be, revealed the extent to which the usually calm BSP (and PES) leader was taken over by perplexity. He had, in fact, delivered earlier an answer on his MEP ambitions by explaining he was just the “symbolic” leader of the socialists’ list just to show how committed to the elections he was. But scores of journalists seemed to feel a certain pleasure in attacking him when sheer helplessness and despair was all that he emanated.
DPS: Debate replaced by fury, mutual reproofs and bombastic statements
Next came the government partners from the DPS and showed incredible confidence stemming from landmark results. Its leader Lyutvi Mestan declared his party had done remarkably well (even though in reality it attracted its usual electoral base of around 400 000 voters) and issued a series of recommendations regarding Bulgarian politics and the party’s place in it. One could not help feeling the DPS perceived themselves as victors. The typical image of a kingmaker easily comes to mind upon hearing Mestan's claim that Bulgaria's political life over the recent years had shown the country was “doomed to be ruled by coalitions”. This was strange enough to hear by someone whose party has been an integral part (or rather the integral part, though not the core) of most present-day Bulgarian coalitions. Mestan even hinted re-negotiation of its relations with the ruling BSP could come onto the agenda “if the situation requires it”.
His rhetoric, however, provoked considerably less attention from those at the press conference than the fact that the party's “number two” in the elections list was attending. Earlier, as the DPS representatives were entering the hall, an army of photographers jumped off chairs and rushed to take pictures of the group which included the lawmaker Delyan Peevski, the same who had sparked last summer's protests in Bulgaria a month after the BSP-DPS government had been forged.
A rain of questions fell upon Peevski, with very little room left for any discussion on the DPS's often-controversial policies. If we set Peevski's merits aside, it must be said that “lack of communication” was the only thing observed in both his approach to journalists and the latter's insatiable desire to ask. After a quick statement in which he lambasted those who made accusations against him, he responded to questions briskly and shortly without producing substantial answers, without actually refuting what other public figures might have perceived to be an attack on their dignity. However, he surprised everyone by saying he was not actually going to Brussels as an MEP but would offer his place to a current Minister instead. Peevski thus managed to produce breaking news one more time. Journalists, for their part, were expectedly more focused on his presence than on the DPS's future agenda for the European Parliament.
A fragile success
The Reformist Bloc, the other party that has made it into the European Parliament, displayed its usual confidence that the latest elections were actually its birth date; it behaved as though the narrow margin by which it had passed the election threshold of 5.88% were a severe blow to the parties of establishment. The EU road ahead of the new coalition of right parties is nevertheless set to have an unprecedented pro-democratic outcome, as voters unexpectedly seemed to rearrange the list order. Meglena Kuneva, who tops the list, is to be “replaced” as the bloc's entry into the Parliament by the runner-up Svetoslav Malinov, who is believed to receive the most of his supporters' preferential vote. Reformists, however, are awaiting tough challenges ahead, with neither promising that they will fulfil their dream to create “a new right alternative” in Bulgarian politics after constellations of small conservative political factions (ones that played an important role at the beginning of Bulgaria's post-communist transition) have been struggling for years to forge any viable alliance, repeatedly failing in a single election cycle.
GERB – torn between humor and religion
The usual remarks of GERB's leader Boyko Borisov on a number of issues deserve a separate scientific research. Nonetheless, the center-right party, which has managed to behave as though in opposition even when it was in power (accusing the formerly ruling elite of present-day problems), did not hesitate to draw media attention when it held its delayed media event on Monday. After claiming it had again won the elections for the umpteenth time (which might be the case, in terms of statistics), Borisov also boasted about having defeated not only the BSP, but also the Party of European Socialists (PES), as Stanishev is actually the President of PES. And not only did he declare his party would demand the European People's Party (EPP)'s Deputy Chairperson office. At his press conference Borisov even invoked God, imploring him that Sergey Stanishev remain BSP's leader for many more years – obviously, so that he could be easily beaten in other rounds of elections to come. Sounds like something appropriate for a football tournament; as if scores were the most crucial thing to watch for.
The big losers
During election night, no signs of official briefings by President (2002-2011) Georgi Parvanov's Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV) or by Volen Siderov's far-right party Ataka (now considered by some to be “in power” through supporting quorum in Parliament) were present. The blows suffered by Parvanov, who splintered off the BSP and insisted he would have his own election list headed by outgoing MEP Ivaylo Kalfin, and also by staunch Russophile and Europhobe (and once staunch Europhile and Russophobe) Volen Siderov are yet to be estimated. However, their results, regardless of different motives for the failure, were an example of Bulgarian political parties' inability (with one single exception) to either attract firm support or maintain it for years. We should neither forget that the winner GERB is also a young party, as it had its first parliamentary elections in 2009, won them by a landslide and then was toppled down, unable to attract the previous electoral support ever since.
“So what's the matter with you? Sing me something new!”
After all that has been said, why should tectonic shifts in Bulgarian political life seem unlikely? Well... because of Barekov's sentence I started with. It is not there to make fun of any politician – and neither is Boyko Borisov's address to the supreme Christian authority. Those who manage to attract voters through eloquence should never be stigmatized just because of being charismatic.
However, in the Bulgarian case, rhetoric is all that the political process seems to generate. Certainly, politics always involves more words than action; but here it was just words. The typical words of a national campaign and almost not a single sentence about Europe, which was the actual occasion for the May 25 vote itself.
Unless politicians learn not to downplay European elections in favour of domestic infighting and to avoid the clich? claiming that the Brussels vote is a mere “test” for the general one, people who evoke folklore images or make the public laugh to death will prevent those who actually want to offer solutions from assuming power.
It is no wonder then to see that, ironically, even openly populist parties failed to win the hearts of Bulgarian voters. At least those who tried to target Europe failed despite reports of mass disgruntlement with the EU. It seems that most voters preferred to live in a permanent campaign for national elections.
This kind of behavior, which incites people to worship futile exercises in rhetoric, also harms those who want to vote for parties demanding change and progress in compliance with EU membership.
Let’s hope the status quo will not further discourage them from either voting or standing to be elected. One does not need a white shirt to have a ballot cast in his favour.