“What’s left and what’s right?”
It might not seem that funny, but that was a common joke among political scientists after 1989, playing on the way the changes in Central and Eastern Europe had upended the traditional political cleavage.
The gist was simple: the fall of communism hit leftists everywhere, so they had to think quickly about what was “left” of their ideals. And the rightists, among them Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, the United States’ Ronald Reagan and Germany’s Helmut Kohl, felt “right,” or vindicated.
Then something strange happened in the East, or at least in Bulgaria: left became right – and right became left.
In the early 1990s money and power belonged more or less to the Bulgarian Socialist Party, successors to the communists. Although they had been excluded from government since the regime change in 1989, the Socialists were the natural party of power. Most of the rich were connected to them, or had their roots in the old system. Their voters came mostly from villages and small towns and tended to be less educated.
By Western standards, the Socialists were a rightist party, with mainstream conservative values. They favored law and order, embraced the security establishment, flirted with nationalism, harbored the big money, and kept a low profile on feminist and gay issues. Socialists connected with the silent majority in every election.
The other camp called itself “right” because the Socialists were left by default. But the early Union of Democratic Forces was leftist in all but its anti-communism. Its urban, intellectual, liberal, world-open, bearded, and long-haired leaders demanded redistribution of wealth and revolution against the powerful. They organized demonstrations that filled city squares. And most tellingly, they had all the rock ’n’ rollers on their side.
Bulgarian rock bands like Shturtsite (The Crickets), the Poduene Blues Band and Signal had their roots in the 1960s and admired John Lennon and Led Zeppelin. The UDF was a loose coalition that evolved into a party, which joined the European People’s Party. But you could hear at its demonstrations Lennon’s Imagine (“no possessions”), sung by a crowd of young and enthusiastic supporters. Strictly speaking, this was not center-right politics at all.
That picture began to change in the second half of the 1990s – and not just in Bulgaria.
The initial, anti-communist movements, like Solidarity in Poland, Civic Forum in the Czech Republic, and the Democratic Forum in Hungary started either to disappear or to transform. Their successors – Civic Platform, the Civic Democratic Party, and Fidesz – were smaller, more narrowly based, typical center-right political structures with libertarian inclinations and Thatcherite overtones. With time, they became more populist, conservative, and patriotic, notably in Hungary.
In Bulgaria the process took a little longer. The UDF was upset at the 2001 elections by the party of the former king, Simeon Saxecoburggotski, after dominating the first full parliamentary term in contemporary Bulgarian history. By 2005 it had become a small party – or, to be precise, two small parties that went through a painful divorce. They joined forces for the 2009 vote, but together still got below 7 percent. The crisis of the right became the idle chat of media pundits.
But there is another reason. Bulgaria already has a vast party on the right. Despite what many Bulgarians will tell you, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s GERB is the authentic center-right party in the Western sense of the word.
GERB is supported by big and small business – and has the security establishment on its side (both No. 1 and 2 in the hierarchy are former police officers). Its values are conservative and Christian. Its economic policy, embodied by Finance Minister Simeon Dyankov, is classically liberal. It is no coincidence that its patron party in Europe is Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, which is economically liberal and socially conservative. No more big demos, no more John Lennons for this typical European conservative party with a charismatic leader.
Interestingly, there are some movements toward authenticity also on the left.
So Bulgarian politics is becoming more normal. What will the future bring? A new cleavage is emerging in the wake of ACTA protests and the rise of pirate parties around Europe that could once again scramble the old left-right divide. Pundits call it “copy-left versus copy-right.”
Copy-right is conservative, pro-business, pro-growth, authorship rights-protecting. On one side it is honest and fair: you get what you pay for. On the other it is selfish and cold. The adversary, copy-left, is welcoming and eager to share. It is also anarchic, chaotic, anti-establishment, and revolutionary. Lennon would have loved it, I am sure. But some industrial people fear a world view in which everybody could get everything for free.
It is not simply good versus evil, nor is it just about free music and movies: it reaches into all areas of life. And in technophile Bulgaria, it cuts across parties. You can see, for example, the UDF’s Dimitrov and some Socialist leaders acting markedly copy-left. And you can see some of the old rock ’n’ rollers acting copy-right, protecting their authorship by embracing a business philosophy of pragmatism.
Whether or not this is the future, one thing is certain: we still do not know what’s left and what’s right.