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Bulgaria's Simmering Election Broth

Views on BG | May 10, 2013, Friday // 14:51| Views: | Comments: 0

The Financial Times

by Andrew MacDowall

“Too many grannies mean an unfed child” is the Bulgarian equivalent of “too many cooks spoil the broth”.

There are lots of fussy Balkan grannies competing in Sunday’s election – and they are likely to squabble for sometime afterwards about who gets to look after the feeble Bulgarian economy.

The election was called two months early after the broadly right-of-centre GERB government of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned following street protests against rising energy bills, poverty, corruption and authoritarianism.

Polls indicate that GERB is slightly ahead of the opposition leftist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). But arguably just as important is the question of which of a number of smaller parties will cross the 4 per cent vote threshold into parliament, and what role they will play in coalition-building.

A May 9 poll by Sova Harris, a private agency, had GERB on 20.9 per cent and the BSP on 20.4 per cent, while the Centre of Analysis and Marketing gave Borisov’s party a bigger lead, at 21.3 per cent to 18.9 per cent, according to Reuters.

More than half the electorate, therefore, is either undecided, or intends to vote neither for the BSP, still regarded by many as the heirs to a troubled Communist legacy, or GERB, tainted by the economic crisis and by allegations of heavy-handed rule since it came to power in 2009. But their votes are fragmented among a range of parties. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), largely backed by Bulgaria’s Muslim minority, is almost certain to make it into parliament.

The DPS’s arch-nemesis Ataka (“Attack”), an ultranationalist force that has been revived by disenchantment with mainstream parties, currently looks likely to creep over the threshold. The DPS has governed in coalition with the BSP in the past, while Ataka once informally backed GERB in parliament.

Other parties in the mix are Bulgaria for the Citizens, a new centrist outfit headed by former European Commissioner Meglena Kuneva; the right-wing Order, Law and Justice, which has sided with GERB; and a motley assortment of other players from a fractious “traditional” pro-European right to the extremist fringes.

In policy terms, GERB in theory sticks by its austerity policies, which have helped rein in the deficit and keep debt levels among Europe’s lowest, but it has not been averse to handing out pre-election baubles and reversing policy when under pressure even before protests erupted.

The BSP has rather optimistic job-generation targets and proposes restructuring the flat tax system that it introduced when in power. In reality, both will be under market pressure to balance the books and implement stalled structural reform, for which neither seem to have much appetite.

Once the votes are counted, a period of horse-trading seems likely, with whoever tops the poll likely to be in the driving seat. This, among other factors, seems to point towards GERB returning to power, which may not prove popular with the Bulgarians who took to the streets, and the many at home who sympathise with them.

But in Balkan politics, it always does to expect the unexpected, or even the apparently impossible. A BSP government with the DPS and Kuneva, along the lines of the 2005-2009 administration, could be on the cards, and a grand coalition between GERB and the Socialists can’t be entirely ruled out, despite intense mutual antipathy.

Bulgaria has never re-elected a government since the fall of Communism. The lack of a “saviour” figure heading a new political force makes this election different from many in the past, including the 2009 election when Borisov played that role. This may mean that Bulgarian politics is stabilising, but also that the country is likely to be ruled by many of the same old faces, from whichever side, once the dust settles.

Whoever wins faces the unenviable task of reinvigorating growth in the EU’s poorest country (official forecasts suggest a a rate of 1 per cent this year), and, as importantly for many Bulgarians, repairing a political system with which many have lost faith.

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