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Bulgaria’s new coalition: A rainbow without colours

By Blog Admin, on 16 November 2014

Bulgaria’s newly formed coalition government seems to span left and right. However, in practice it offers a familiar mix of nationalism and neo-liberalism, argues James Dawson.

Bulgaria’s newly-formed coalition, comprised of the pro-European rightists of GERB and the Reformist Bloc, ex-President Parvanov’s ‘leftist’ ABV and the ultranationalist Patriotic Front might look like an unlikely alliance of ideologically incompatible parties – an apparent case of what the political scientist Thomas Carothers once termed ‘feckless pluralism’.

Certainly, this has been the angle taken by many commentators inside the country who puzzle at the ability of political actors routinely labelled ‘pro-European’, ‘right-wing’, ‘left-wing’ and ‘nationalist’ to work together. Yet such analyses rest on the flawed assumption that these labels reflect clearly articulated, meaningfully differentiated policy platforms helping citizens to identify with specific ideas.

In practice, this is a perfectly dull coalition consisting only of parties that are functionally both neo-liberal and nationalist, along with the now customary support of some shouting-at-the-TV-type xenophobes (though the role played by Ataka in the previous two governments will now be filled by the Patriotic Front).

If it is now difficult to discern one political platform from another, then it follows that many, probably most, votes are cast on the basis of non-programmatic appeals. Charismatic and clientelistic dynamics almost certainly explain why voter turnout remains quasi-respectable (over 50%) in a context of mass protest and disillusionment. Yet though ideas and policies may not decide the outcome of Bulgarian elections, they still matter: politicians must do something when given control of the state. The path of least resistance in Bulgaria has usually been to combine neo-liberalism and nationalism. It is unlikely that this government will buck the trend.

Neo-liberal ideas have never become a popular narrative across the country – most Bulgarians remain preoccupied with getting by and are not identifiable in terms of economic policy orientations. However, the arguments of the right have gradually assumed the position of a shared ‘common sense’ among influential urban demographics. In part, this can be explained by the preferences of the oligarchic networks that dominate media ownership.

However, the victory of neo-liberalism owes just as much to the actions of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which has for over two decades used leftist rhetoric to mask its collusion in the enrichment of these same oligarchs, both through business-friendly policies (such as the famous 10% flat corporation tax) and old-style corruption. Predictably, this has led to left-wing ideas coming to be seen as intellectually non-viable by those politically engaged sections of the electorate to whom intellectual viability matters.

A credible politics of the left?

So what are the chances that ABV, the ex-BSP splinter party of ex-President Parvanov’that has now found its way into the new coalition, will restore some credibility to ‘left-wing’ politics? Not great, since the old regime pedigree of key personnel such as Georgi Parvanov and ex-Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin dictates that leftist rhetoric will most probably be combined with neo-liberal policy. The party’s supremely vacuous mission statement, repeatedly lauding unspecified ‘new ideas’ and ‘experts’, will be more than enough to allow the country’s business elites – including potential backers – to rest easy.

Thus, the only significant section of the Bulgarian electorate liable to explain their political allegiances in terms of clear economic policy preferences are those better-off urbanites who waver between the charms of GERB under the muscular leadership of Boiko Borissov and other right-wing parties now stroppily tolerating each other in the Reformist Bloc.

Though the claims of these parties to stand for ‘Europe’ and ‘democracy’ are very debatable, their status as enthusiastic proponents of right-wing economic liberalism should not be in doubt. From the rapid privatisations of the Kostov administration (1997-2001) to GERB Finance Minister Simeon Djankov’s ‘make-mine-a-double’ approach to Austerity in 2009-13, Bulgaria’s right-wing leaders have done much over the years to please the editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal.

Yet the undisputed dominance of neo-liberal logic in ‘respectable’ discussions of economic policy means that the ability of political parties to win votes on the basis of being ‘right-wing’ is probably on the wane even among this core demographic; ubiquity may be leading to invisibility. Last year, at the height of the protests against the BSP-led government, one Sofia lawyer wrote an opinion piece in the daily Sega rejecting labels of ‘right’ and ‘left’.

Outlining a kind of manifesto rooted in folksy maxims and personal experience, she stated that advocacy of ‘equality’ was a sign of ‘cowardice’, ‘hypocrisy’ or ‘stupidity’, then claimed that she would vote for any candidate promising ‘not to touch the flat tax, to liberalize the energy markets and to close down any unprofitable state enterprises – even if he calls himself ultra-left’. ‘Am I left or am I right?’ she repeatedly asked readers before declaring that she did not care where she fell on the political spectrum. This may simply reveal political illiteracy. However, it might also be seen as a rational reaction to the emptiness of policy debate in a context where politicians of ‘right’ and ‘left’ tend to agree on the most important points and end up implementing similar policies.

An ethnic nationalist consensus

Secondly, each group in the new coalition is committed to maintaining the ethnic nationalist character of the political community. The most obvious group to mention here are the Patriotic Front, whose role in the GERB-led government has provoked complaints from GERB’s European People’s Party colleague in the light of the Front’s policy pledges to station missiles on the border with Turkey and to oblige ethnic Turks to sit compulsory Bulgarian language exams at the age of 6.

Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that the basic ideals underpinning these reckless policies are not shared by coalition partners more adept at steering clear of European rebukes. When GERB Prime Minister Borissov last first ran for PM he made a series of contentious nationalist statements that did his popularity little harm in a country where few question that the purpose of the state is to improve the lot of ethnic Bulgarians.

Similarly, though no party involved in the Reformist Bloc has served in government since 2001, the grouping will probably not risk any political capital challenging this hegemony – not least because it was the Reformists who insisted upon the inclusion of the Patriotic Front in the coalition.

Finally, the ‘leftist’ party ABV, whose name stands both for the first three letters of the Bulgarian alphabet and ‘Alternative for the Bulgarian Revival’, is the political vehicle of Georgi Parvanov. Few voters will have forgotten that in 2007 then President Parvanov was active in whipping up a nationalist hate campaign (or ‘defending the nation’s honour’ depending on your point of view) against academic historians who had dared to challenge Bulgarian historiographical narratives.

This ethnic nationalist consensus will set the general direction of policy in a way that will be considered uncontroversial in a context where every schoolchild is encouraged to carry a sense of grievance based on ‘five hundred years’ of Ottoman domination. The new GERB Deputy Prime Minister Rumyana Bachvarova has already endorsed the Patriotic Front campaign to de-fund the Turkish-language news bulletins which has been carried daily by the state broadcaster BNT since 2000.

Business as usual

It is more significant however, to consider what will not change: the rules of the game. The ethnically exclusivist character of the state is still protected by Bulgaria’s 1991 constitution which contains a clause forbidding ‘parties formed on an ethnic or religious basis’. This clause has never been used – and was never designed to be used – against a Bulgarian nationalist party.

If the ethnic Turkish-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms wish to contest the kinds nationalist attacks on their constituency described above, they will have to tread lightly because each and every member of the ruling coalition retains a plausible interest in seeking to have the party declared illegal.

Alternatively, ‘business as usual’ would see mainstream Bulgarian parties playing the ethnic card from time to time confident that the MRF will protect its position among the country’s elite by preaching restraint to its constituents, not daring to trigger a constitutional challenge. In short, none of the present coalition are interested in challenging ethnic nationalist hegemony, while the MRF is forbidden from doing so.

Overall, domestic policy outcomes are unlikely to be massively different from those of the past three governments, all considered unholy alliances at the time they were formed: the tripartite coalition of BSP, MRF and Simeon II National Movement (NSDV) (2005-9) and the Ataka-supported minority administrations of GERB (2009-13) and BSP-MRF (2013-14). In a political context where ideas are of limited electoral importance, neo-liberalism and nationalism will continue to shape policy by default.

James Dawson has worked at UCL School of Public Policy since 2013 and currently serves as acting Director of MSc Democracy and Comparative Politics. He is the author of Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria: How Ideas Shape Publics (Ashgate 2014). The book will be launched at a public event hosted by the UCL-SSEES Centre for South East European Studies on Tuesday 18 November at UCL-SSEES.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL