Run-off presidential elections in Bulgaria last Sunday have had a predictable winner, the incumbent president Georgy Parvanov. Why the predictability, and what this result would mean for the immediate future of the country?
On the second round, needed because in the first 45% of the voter took part, the competition was between the incumbent president and self-made chauvinist, Volen Siderov, leader of Ataka.
Ataka opposes privatization, trade liberalization, and EU and North-Atlantic identity of Bulgaria’s foreign policy. It also claims that minorities of Bulgarian Turks and Roma de facto exploit the majority of the Bulgarian citizens through a) the party Muslim typically vote for, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF)(1) , which by tradition and due to consolidation of its voter constituency holds the swing vote in the parliament for already many years; and b) the free-riding on the governments and EU welfare programs. Ataka had surprised many if not all political observers’ expectations for the last year general elections, by winning 15 seats in the 240-member parliament. Siderov’s key electoral message than was to ban MRF, exit Iraq and NATO and renationalize privatized industries, thus “Giving Bulgaria Back to Bulgarians”(2). Those messages were not amended significantly this year, the accent, however, was put on “fighting” mafia that was allegedly rooted in the links with mainstream political parties, including Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), a successor of the Communists and MRF. Georgy Parvanov was a still remains informal leader of BSP.
Bulgarian citizen usually vote in relatively big numbers in presidential elections. The average voter turnaround in 1992, 1996 and 2001 elections for a head of state was 60-70%. On October 29th, only 40% took part in the elections: Parvanov got ¾ of the vote or about 30% of the all votes.
There are four reasons that have made this outcome inevitable.
1. Right of the center political parties have suffered a political disease that might be called “agenda exhaustion”: they led reforms towards multi-party democracy, privatization, restitution of nationalized properties and market economy, towards joining NATO and the EU. All these is successfully accomplished, in 2005 and 2006 elections they had little to offer and proved unable to confront populist rhetoric of Parvanov and Suderov.
2. Bulgaria President is with almost ceremonial powers by constitution. He or she is to be elected by a popular vote, but the institutional functions are to represent the country, hand off the mandate to form an executive and set a caretaker cabinet in times of political crisis and call fresh elections as well as the right to return laws back to legislature (which than could be passed by 50+1 majority of all seats). President Zhelev in 1991 – 1996 managed to block BSP (holding a sizable majority in the parliament before 1997 and the executive in 1994-1997) attempts to reverse property restitution and crackdown on property rights and privatization. He and President Stoyanov (1997 – 2001), both democrats, have been instrumental securing rule of law and smooth power transfer in time of political crisis. President Parvanov pretended he is “social president”, talked much about everything from family and raising kids, to migration, economic strategy, history and nuclear energy. He succeeded in emptying the constitutional content out of the presidential powers and substituted it with general policy talk. Right-wing candidate, Nedelcho Beronov, a former constitutional judge had no chance to compete on this grounds. Bulgarians simply disagreed with the substitution and get tired of the general talk and did not come out to vote.
3. Georgy Parvanov himself was not so long ago not very much different from Volen Siderov. In 1990-1991 he opposed returning the names to the Christianized Turks, sat on the board of an extremely; he openly opposed NATO accession, demonstrated in the streets on the issue and sent a letter of support to Milosevic in 1999. He would oppose privatization as well if his party is not cutting the gain.
4. So, the choice in the last October weekend was more between the somewhat normal populist rhetoric and abnormal populist rhetoric, when the former saves the image of the country as mainstream EU political system. It was about political correctness, and the political correctness is the real winner of the elections.
Bulgarian political observers imagined for a moment before the second round that the country resembles last presidential elections in France when Chirac defeated Le Pen with the help of the Socialist voters. Therefore, they believed Bulgaria right-wing voters should cast their votes in favor of Parvanov.
Voters did not listen.
What this constellation means for the future?
1. BSP and Parvanov himself have regained some confidence. They run the executive, on the MRF mandate(3) , in coalition with MRF and the ex-king’s party, National Movement Simeon the Second (NMSS). The coalition hold a 2/3 majority in the legislature and is able to amend the constitution of its own. Within the coalition MRF holds ministries that are believed lucrative in terms of EU subsidies. The prime minister, Mr. Stanishev, is personally weak but successfully holds the balance between BSP, MRF and NMSS interest thanks to the relative strength of BSP (with 1/5 of the vote there is no other political party to contest the leadership) and the help of the three-member (i.e. leaders) Coalition Council or“Polit-Bureau”. The “Polit-Bureau” decides on tricky issues related to personal appointments, division of responsibilities between the parties and the balance of interest and influence.
2. The second term of the President Parvanov would certainly garnish a greater informal weight of BSP within the coalition. It would make NMSS tacit criticism on economic policies and socialist redistribution even more silent that it now. MRF strength is not likely to suffer at all. MRF have landed roughly 1/3 of the votes that elected Georgy Parnanov. Ahmed Dogan, the NRF leader, seems stronger within the coalition, less liked by the Bulgarian voters but more needed with the Polit-Bureau and the coalition to keep mandate.
3. The self-confidence of BSP and MRF has always been next to arrogance. In the first days after the election there are all signs of growing self-esteem and there are already attempt to humiliate right-wing voters and parties. This “strength” would not translate, however, into a misuse of constitutional majority for lessening property rights or increased redistributionist policies. choice between On one hand, most of the damage is already done and is related to: longer and comparatively more disadvantageous (for Bulgarian farmers and land owners viz-a-vie their palls in CEE) periods and processes of foreigners buying arable land in Bulgaria; constitutionally protected government monopolies and “exclusive rights”; inappropriate definition of judicial independency and the already enshrined multiple “social rights”.
4. Besides the rhetoric, the rational and the political drive for further fiscal and quasi-fiscal reforms towards lowering taxes and reducing costs of dealing with the government – traditionally very high in Bulgaria – will be totally lost. Those reforms have suffered already but the reestablished political self-esteem would more likely support populist lawmaking than any other available alternative.
5. In the area of pure presidential prerogatives Mr. Parvanov will be reassured. He met with Mr. Putin more times that all post-Communist country leaders of Europe have met the Russia altogether. Mr. Putin is Mr. Parvanov’s role model. Mr. Parfvanov, in order to prevent campaign disclosures, has publicly admitted that he had worked for the Bulgaria analogue of KGB, KDS. “KDS” was in fact managed by “KGB”. Now, like Putin, Georgy Parvanov is trying to glorify those years, gives state awards to KDS-collaborators, hoping thus to glorify himself and fellow-collaborators. He is perhaps the only head of EU state that speaks no EU language and attempts to speak Russian. His heart lies in Russia not in EU, and he is trying to benefit from these sympathies. That does not necessarily mean that the country will benefit, at least there not such sign after the first five meetings with Vladimir Putin.
6. All above said is no good political development. But it is not too bad, either. The fact right-wing voters did not supported Mr. Parvanov, irrespectively the propaganda, means that in the country there is a strong public opinion that would support further market reforms. It did not find necessary to vote at all, expecially on the second round. But this opinion is there to stay, and even the BSP-MRF-NMSS coalition and its president cannot ignore it.
(1) MRF’s name and strength come from the Communist past, as a reaction to the stupid communist party policies of the mid-1980’s to rename Bulgarian Turks, give them Christian or quasi-Christian names by force (other Muslims, the Pomacks – ethnic Bulgarian - were renamed in the 1970’s), and expel from the country those who publicly disagree with that policy (which eventually happened in mid-1989, few months before the political change). The new constitution of 1991 restore the rights, almost all of 300,000 Bulgarian Turk who fled to Turkey in May-August 1989 have returned back, and reclaimed their names and properties; they enjoy freedom of movement, many work or live in Turkey, and have the rights to vote in Bulgaria. The article 11.4 of the 1991 constitution banned political parties built on ethnic and religious grounds, thus securing a sort of MRF monopoly on the Muslim vote in Bulgaria’s political affairs. More information and analysis on this background, including constellations of Bulgarian Roma, one could find in the IME English monthly, Economic Policy Review (EPR, www.ime.bg ).
(2) See analysis of those elections in the respective issues of the Economic Policy Review.
(3) In July – August 2005 BSP and all other political parties had failed to elect a cabinet, see EPR.