Should Bulgaria Be Afraid of Patriotic Front's 'Ethnic Tune'?
From the first days of the recent Bulgarian government the nationalist coalition called Patriotic Front has made numerous attempts at crossing the line of ethnic and religious tolerance.
In a matter of just a few weeks the PF brought a new lease of life to a debate which might be somehow unintelligible in Europe: first of all, should Turkish-language news be aired by the national channel of public broadcaster BNT after this has been done for fifteen years? And, secondly, should an ethnic Turk, named Orhan Ismailov, become Deputy Defense Minister?
Both co-leaders of the PF, Valeri Simeonov and Krasimir Karakachanov, had even initially resisted an invitation by center-right GERB to support the cabinet (back in October, during the consultations), again for "ethnic" reasons. They had declared that an "ethnic party" like the Freedom and Dignity People's Party, an entity within the junior coalition partner Reformist Bloc (RB), could not be part of the government if the PF were to support it.
Then obviously both the mandate-bearer GERB and the nationalists made concessions and as tensions were subsiding, the fact that Korman Ismailov's NPSD had been left without any official posts in the government (even though all bigger RB entities had been granted positions in the executive) passed somehow unnoticed. Patriots seemed to have turned a blind eye on Ismailov's presence in a party that is in power... until a member of the same party, with the same family, was proposed as a deputy to Nikolay Nenchev.
This week saw a culmination of the PF's ability to mix up the issues, with an ultimatum posed to the government over its intention to appoint Orhan Ismailov and a second, less noisy but explicit ultimatum to reschedule the Turkish-language news "in 100 days". Some Turkish media outlets reported of the events, with a picture of "violating minority rights" undoubtedly conveyed by any piece of information failing to provide more information on the context.
"To us, only the Bulgarian language can be broadcast on television as the country's constitution defines it as the official language," Simeonov told Anadolu Agency. Turkey's official press agency continued its report with the stances of other key officials clearly protesting at such demands "to the extreme".
Orhan Ismailov's appointment, on the other hand, triggered quite an artificial debate on whether someone should be denied an official post only for having "an ethnic name". It was artificial, because it was long ago that Bulgaria's political culture integrated "ethnic" representatives, especially Turks - admittedly, thanks to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), regardless of the controversy it might sometimes stir up. GERB for its part said it was ready to consider the proposal on the news bulletin and also that it would decide on Ismailov's position within a week.
Whatever it may eventually announce, the most important for the Patriotic Front is that it comes out as a winner.
The PF is undoubtedly the government's kingmaker; if it does fulfill its threats to withdraw support from Boyko Borisov's cabinet, the government might easily collapse, since it would fall short of a majority in Parliament, with the number of MPs that back it sinking from 137 to 118, out of 240 lawmakers.
Valeri Simeonov, more often behaving as the PF's driving force than Karakachanov, is not just a politician; he is also a businessman. Being the owner of a TV channel called SKAT, he built his campaign and managed to rise to popularity using his media coverage. He managed to keep PF's "double" profile of both being related to the government (securing stability of the cabinet) and not in the government (staying out of it) while not losing the Patriots' bargaining power.
Whatever the outcome of this bargaining is in the case of Ismailov and the Turkish-language news, it is better to pose "conditions" now to fend off any voter doubts that the PF is loyal to its own program. There is no need to withdraw support for the cabinet if you can later explain to voters that you are in this legislature and close to this executive to fight for your priorities but have been denied the right to fulfill them and that you are still committed to exert pressure on the government but need more time to talk them into accepting your ideas. Such a stand could then justify a pledge to continue supporting the government in a situation when nobody wants fresh early elections.
The "ethnic tune" is a matter of showmanship for the Patriotic Front, which has a strong urge both to cling to power and to keep its electorate; especially having learned a lesson from the mistakes of Ataka party, formerly known as the leading nationalist forms but unable to make more than a thin crowd gather after its fourteen-month stay in the previous, and fragile, Parliament became a classical case in point of a populist party losing both ideology and momentum after entering into the legislature.
At the same time the sheer fact of a party needing to play the "ethnic card" (which also means to play with fire) to attract voters means much is to be done to bring relations among all Bulgarian citizens to normality.
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