chapter  4
Bulgaria: The discontents and frustrations of a newly consolidated democracy
ByDANIEL SMILOV
Pages 25

Introduction The European Union (EU) has had an enormous influence on Bulgarian constitutionalism and democratic politics in general. It has been undoubtedly the most important factor in the setting of social priorities in Bulgaria for the last ten years. The mega goal of Bulgarian governments was to join this prestigious club of countries. Therefore, compliance with EU conditionality, adaptation of governmental structures to meet common standards, harmonization of legislation, etc., were paramount governmental concerns. Somewhat paradoxically, following a steady course towards the EU did not help Bulgarian governments to win votes: no incumbent government after 1997 was re-elected, while all governments followed basically the same political course vis-à-vis the EU. It is true that compliance with EU conditions and norms was sometimes creative, that there were misunderstandings on both sides in the process of negotiations, that the Bulgarian state machinery was and remained inefficient and incompetent in certain areas, and that there were unavoidable, unintended consequences. But all such side effects pale in comparison with the achievement. EU membership is the most important and successful political project carried out by Bulgarian democratic institutions since the fall of the old regime in 1989. Success is good for any type of government, and it is especially good for democracy. The general effect of success is that it confers legitimacy, so much so that the people perceive it as a success. This is definitely the case in Bulgaria: no domestic actor has seriously questioned thus far Bulgarian membership in the EU. Even the nationalist-populist party Ataka, which emerged after the 2005 parliamentary elections, did not campaign against EU membership. In the EU parliament, where it was represented after 2007, Ataka indeed helped found a EU-sceptical parliamentary faction together with the likes of Le Pen. But its ‘original sin’ (within this company) was that it was not Eurosceptic by birth. All in all, Euroscepticism, although increasing, still does not represent the common attitude of Bulgarians to the EU. Therefore, EU membership has no doubt strengthened Bulgarian democracy and it has helped a lot in making it irreversible. Nostalgia about the old communist regime is still strong in Eastern Europe in general, but it seems that by now

its political relevance has weakened significantly, confining the phenomenon to aesthetic and personal areas, at least as far as the Bulgarian case goes. Thus, when the question is about the choice of a form of government, democracy comes first for Bulgarians, and this fact should not be underestimated in a country with no democratic tradition to speak of. From a historical perspective, democratically elected governments had led Bulgaria mostly to ‘national catastrophes’: especially in the period of the Balkan wars and the First World War. The remaining pre-communist history was dominated by authoritarianism of different sorts, in most of which the monarch – Tsar Boris III – played a key role. It is all the more significant then that his son Simeon II was democratically elected as prime minister (PM) in 2001, and that he subjected his political career to the vote of the Bulgarian citizens. They elected him to the office enthusiastically, but after a short while his popularity started to decrease steadily. At the time of writing (summer 2009), the former tsar and his party NDSV (National Movement for Stability and Prosperity, formerly known as National Movement Simeon II) failed to clear the 4 per cent electoral threshold at the 5 July parliamentary elections, and were relegated to the status of a small extraparliamentary party with dubious prospects for political survival. Similar considerations apply to the other historical competitor of democracy in Bulgaria – communism. Its main proponent in the first half of the 1990s was the successor of the Bulgarian Communist Party – the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). By 1997, however, this party had been seriously reformed: it abandoned all ideas of a ‘third way’ (understood in a domestic context as a hybrid between communism and capitalism), experimenting with which had led the country to a financial collapse in 1996. Partly in order to become acceptable for EU partners, the BSP went through a dramatic metamorphosis: by 1999 it had become a party aspiring for Bulgarian membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (although opposed to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia). By 2005 it had fully committed itself to Euroatlantic values, including the precepts of neoliberal economic policy. In 2007, the BSP-led government introduced a 10 per cent flat tax on personal and corporate profits, and remained astonishingly insensitive to the demands of a strike by public school teachers for a pay rise. Very much as in the case of Simeon II, however, the popularity of this party is progressively being eroded: in the 2007 European Parliament elections and in the following local elections, the BSP was replaced as the largest Bulgarian party by a new populist player, the political party GERB1 led by the mayor of Sofia, Boyko Borissov. At the recent parliamentary elections, GERB swept aside the BSP coalition government by winning almost 40 per cent of the popular vote, which secured for it 116 out of 240 seats in the Bulgarian National Assembly. In contrast, the BSP got only 17.7 per cent of the popular vote translating into 40 parliamentary seats. All this goes to show that no one can seriously argue that the EU has had anything but a positive effect on Bulgarian democracy. It has helped strengthen democratic attitudes and undermine distrust and disbelief in democracy in general. Yet, Bulgarian democracy, as it stands at the moment, is a frustrated

and disillusioned democracy.2 There are some features of Bulgarian public life, which might disturb analysts and theoreticians. Some of these are the following:

• lack of trust and confidence in representative structures, especially parliaments and established political parties;3

• low levels of participation in democratic politics – elections,4 party membership, small donations for political parties;

• better political mobilization of the ‘losers of the transition’ in comparison with the ‘winners’, which leads to a specific ‘radicalization’ of the representative process;

• constant emergence of new populist political parties and movements, which offer the personal charisma of their leaders as a substitute for party structure and programmatic coherence;

• increasing focus on ‘identity issues’ in the political platforms of winning political parties; and

• super-independence of the judiciary (including the Constitutional Court (CC)) to such an extent that it has become self-serving and corporatist.