The incumbent always loses.
That has been the rule of Bulgarian parliamentary elections during the country’s 23 years of post-communism. It has created an unstable political system with two constant pillars – the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), supported mainly by Bulgarian Turks and Muslims – with varying options on the right or center right. Voters changed their preferences with every ballot, and the political pendulum swung from one extreme to another. Easily angered by poverty, corruption, and crisis, Bulgarians eagerly seized on election promises as if on miracles.
So Bulgaria became the country with the highest political volatility rate in Europe. But this year, its voters were expected buck recent history and re-elect the center-right GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria).
In 2009, GERB – led by the charismatic Boyko Borisov, and buoyed by widespread dissatisfaction with the ruling coalition of the Socialists, DPS, and a party led by former King Simeon Saxecoburggotski – won comfortably. For most of his time as prime minister, Borisov enjoyed high approval ratings and visible media sympathy. The polls gave him a second chance even after his resignation in February amid protests over high energy bills. Many experts thought pendulum politics would be broken, that this time the incumbent would win.
Typically for the Balkans, that happened, but only halfway. GERB did place first in the 12 May elections, but it could not form a government and went into opposition. Borisov did not want to free even one symbolic GERB vote to allow his rivals to form a government, although he was publicly challenged to do so. The new prime minister, Plamen Oresharski, was elected by the 120 Socialist and DPS lawmakers (representing exactly half the seats in parliament), with nationalist Volen Siderov of the Attack party providing the one additional warm body needed that day to secure a quorum.
Those three parties may seem strange bedfellows, but they have one thing in common: the wish to keep GERB out of office. So for the first time in Bulgaria’s transition period, a parliament will start with the biggest faction isolated. Not that the Oresharski government is in danger of toppling; far from it. For that to happen, at least one Socialist or Rights and Freedoms legislator would have to defect, and that’s unlikely when the coalition partners are such in a triumphant mood.
For they feel vindicated. They remember how, upon coming to power in 2009, Borisov demonized their previous government for corruption, mismanagement, and lavish spending amid a fiscal crisis. Now, they demonize him for exactly the same. Only to it, they add the painful austerity measures of former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Simeon Dyankov, and the alleged wire-tapping of political opponents under the other deputy prime minister, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov.
The election campaign was full of this attack rhetoric. There was hardly anything that could constitute an exchange of visions about the country; it was one taping scandal after another. It all culminated the day before the voting, when a private TV channel – and afterward the entire opposition – accused GERB of falsifying the ballot. Borisov, the former media darling, tasted the anger of some outlets and journalists who had quickly changed sides. And after the new government was formed, he had to face another unpleasant event: some of his key policies were thrown into reverse.
Oresharski and his ministers promised to loosen a smoking ban in bars and restaurants and to bolster the National Security Agency at the expense of the Interior Ministry. They said they would “give a chance” to diplomats who had been sacked from ambassador posts by the previous government for their ties to the communist-era secret services and re-open talks over a new nuclear power plant. That project was considered a dead issue: the previous parliament decided to nix it after a referendum in which voters favored building it was nullified by low turnout. Yet Oresharski, a cautious speaker, added some “ifs”: “if it is economically viable, if an investor appears, if the energy analysis permits.”
It’s true that with these changes, Oresharski is following the majority. But he is also annoying powerful minorities in his first days on the job. It is a difference of style: Borisov tried to charm everybody, while Oresharski speaks curtly and technically, avoiding the usual political rhetoric. A former finance minister, he has resisted the Socialists’ attempts to revise the flat tax, arguing, “The Bulgarian tax system works perfectly, since I devised it myself.” Oresharski also used to be deputy chairman of the Union of Democratic Forces, a center-right party. Although he was elected on the Socialist ballot, he is not a member of the Socialist Party. The current prime minister is a rare bird in Bulgarian politics, describing himself as a conservative. Some (albeit not all) of his ministers also have an expert profile.
The personal integrity of the prime minister, however, has not calmed the political system. In these first weeks after the elections, the parties are locked in vicious fights with one another, in parliament as well as in the media.
During these dramatic events, I was in Switzerland, where I talked to Swiss politicians and journalists who know something of Bulgaria – though not enough to keep them from being puzzled by the country’s political culture.
Hansueli von Allmen, who served 20 years as mayor of the central Swiss city of Thun, wondered at Bulgarian politics’ revolving door. He said he had known many mayors of the Bulgarian town of Gabrovo, but only one had been re-elected.
“Someone new was always coming and making promises he couldn’t keep,” von Allmen said. “I heard accusations of corruption that were never proved. It’s better to have stability – and to tell voters the truth.”
Marc Lettau, editor of the Swiss Review magazine, said invalidating the results of the first and to date only referendum in Bulgarian history would seem shockingly anti-democratic to most Swiss. He said Bulgarians lack a way to reach consensus or mutual understanding outside of politics: “There is no experience with doing something together, something to make a difference.”
Normally, things look clearer from the outside. And Bulgarians are keen to track what foreigners say about them. It is more or less the same with every post-communist Balkan country, where incumbents are hated; a referendum is a rare bird and continuity rarer still.
Political maturity comes slowly. In the meantime you have to be very able – or very lucky – to overcome “ordinary” volatility in extraordinary times.