Bulgaria's Presidential Election Portends Borisov's Steady Decline
When a foreign media outlet dubbed President-elect Rumen Radev the man who could upturn “the apple cart of Bulgarian politics,” no-one meant that literally.
But as Radev was clutching at the apple thrown to him by a Bulgarian journalist during his victory press-conference, the phrase looked like a prophecy come true.
Boyko Borisov, the outgoing Prime Minister, has been a dominant figure in Bulgarian politics since the mid-2000s. With the election of Radev for President on Sunday, this may be changing.
Even if it isn't – with Borisov possibly having time until the early election in the spring to turn the table – what happened in the weekend is just a milestone in his steady decline as the father figure of the Bulgarian people, both at home and among hundreds of thousands of expats who have been voting with their feet for decades.
Support for his GERB party (and him, given his larger-than-life presence in the party) was 39.7% in the 2009 general election. It fell to 30.5% in 2013's snap vote and went slightly up, to 32.7%, in yet another early poll in 2014, as he had been in opposition amid anti-government protests. When he tried to “rule by proxy”, by installing a “motherly” president that is strongly tied to the party and counting only on his authority to win, the blow he sustained left him bitterly disappointed. In the first round, Tsetska Tsacheva got 22% - a nightmare for Borisov, who had done his best to pretend Bulgaria was voting for Parliament and not for President.
Borisov had thrown the party's entire weight behind Tsetska Tsacheva
and expecting the authority of GERB, a producer of “tangible results” (the slogan used in last year's local elections) would suffice.But after he declared intention to step down if his candidate loses even the first round, Bulgarians virtually voted him out of office. Twice. Tsacheva came second on November 06; he backtracked, trying to mobilize the electorate along the lines of “communism” and “anti-communism”; Tsacheva was defeated in the runoff and then he had no choice.
Beyond the politicking, electoral tactics and other games that may have brought Rumen Radev into the Presidency, there is yet another reason for what happened.
It's getting harder for Borisov to match public expectations.
Bulgaria, often behaving as the European Union's most faithful satellite, was back in the 1990s driven by one big goal: EU and NATO membership. Its political elites were ready to make sacrifices in the name of a place in the Western political and defense system, with the public largely welcoming these as a necessary evil.
Many of these “sacrifices” were not made the right way. As a result, corruption is endemic, cronyism works at all levels of power, the so-called judicial reform has not yet made up for the fact no high-profile politician has been sent behind bars, and the the agriculture and industries lost the potential they had back when Bulgaria was making its first steps into democracy.
When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, Borisov was, like Radev now, a newcomer to Bulgarian politics. He cannot be credited with previous cabinets' mistakes.
To the contrary,
certain achievements of his administrations should be acknowledged
when it comes to transport, infrastructure, absorption of EU funding, and securing a business climate that can bring in foreign investors. They kept on reassuring Bulgarians that so long as Sofia worked with Brussels tightly enough, its interests (whatever they are) would be safeguarded – and to whoever looked at Bulgarian media headlines and pictures of Borisov's EU visits, with officials smiling at him, that looked true.
Borisov's governments spent too much time boasting about their achievements – as though one needs appraisal for arriving at work. All the bragging may have well hidden the “side effects” of their focus on infrastructure and EU funding – such as the neglect of northern Bulgaria's economic and transport system to the benefit of the south. It was supposed to hide the failure to eradicate corruption and EU finds misuse from municipalities and regions across the country; to kickstart a judicial reform that will effectively jail high-profile officials who committed any wrongdoing during the transition years; to reduce the economy's excessive reliance on EU funding and foreign investment, a sin attributed by a recent Bertelsmann report to “several successive governments”.
GERB stepped into power two-and-a-half years into Bulgaria's EU membership. The global crisis had already begun and the euro crisis was looming. It took Borisov only a little effort, using his charisma, to present himself as the country's buffer against European and global turmoil, but also an avenger against the established elite which, he (rightly) argued, had not done enough to help Bulgaria catch up with the rest of Europe. He soon became the people's lifeguard (actually a job he did for erstwhile dictator Todor Zhivkov) by running a government that cracked down on all kinds of “criminals”. Before his second term, he had stood out as the only alternative to the shady “status quo” that had brought controversial media mogul Delyan Peevski into the counter-intelligence service. When he won a second term, he was the wise elder who could glue drastically differing parties into a minority cabinet. Later on, he was an effective protector against the migrant crisis.
Or was he?
It was easy for Borisov to convey all those stereotypes for himself back then,
when civil society and the general public weren't so active in trying to find “the truth” - abstract as this notion may be. To digital media users, Bulgaria's achievements all of a sudden revealed themselves as insignificant, its growth sluggish for a developing economy, and its positions ill-defended in the EU. Previously, he would return from a EU summit and speak of what he had gained for Bulgaria. With an increasing number of journalists and curious netizens double-checking the Commission's press releases, in time it turned out that often times he was coming back empty-handed, having sat at the table of EU leaders not raising a single objection.
After Tsacheva's first-round defeat, he resorted to the image of an “anti-communist fighter” as Radev would allegedly take Bulgaria away from NATO and the EU by seeking rapprochement with Russia. It didn't work. Whether or not Radev does back closer ties with Russia is something we will not know before he assumes the Presidency.
Doing this, Borisov seemed to forget
his own calls for a more constructive dialogue with Russia; his Agriculture Minister's frequent statements about losses incurred by Bulgarian producers over the last two years; his own refusal to take part in a Black Sea NATO initiative aimed at countering Russia; his move toward an energy thaw with Moscow; not least, the Defense Ministry's decision to procure MiG-29 fighter aircraft engines from the original equipment manufacturers, after having ended an earlier maintenance contract with RSK MiG and vowed not to work with a Russian company due to the sanctions. So much for the “pro-EU”, “pro-NATO” Prime Minister.
Radev is often accused of having been harsh on migrants throughout his campaign. It was, however, Borisov who sought to maximize, though the work of his party and institutions, the perception of a huge “migrant threat” to Bulgaria even though there are only a few thousands arrivals in the “toughest” summer months and most leave the country. He did so to avoid a populist and nationalist backlash. What Radev did was just to “build upon” the scaremongering.
His appearance on the political scene may be owed to his messages for change (some being slight alterations to Borisov's), his personal charisma, and the Bulgarian Socialist Party's helping hand throughout the campaign. However, as the outgoing Prime Minister struggles to find his way back into power in the next election, his call for change will look odd.
Uttered by a political newbie, however, messages for change may resonate strongly with the electorate. Repeated by someone who already promised change but did little to deliver, they just fade away without leaving a trace.
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