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Bulgar materialism: Bulgaria’s election is unlikely to do much to clean up corruption

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AS OF a few months ago, it was possible to hope that Bulgaria’s parliamentary election on March 26th might be fought over the crucial issue of corruption. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, of the centre-right GERB (“coat of arms”) party, called the elections in November after his party’s candidate lost the presidential race to Rumen Radev, a former air-force general backed by the rival Socialists. Mr Borisov, who became prime minister in 2014 after a banking crisis and a wave of anti-corruption protests, had turned the presidential vote into a referendum on his leadership. Voters, disappointed by slow anti-corruption efforts as well as controversial reforms in education and health care, gave him a thumbs-down.

The polls are showing a tight race, with GERB and the Socialists each getting about 30% support. “None of the big parties has a clear lead,” says Daniel Smilov of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, a think-tank. Meanwhile, a new anti-corruption party, Yes Bulgaria, hopes to capitalise on anger against self-dealing elites. The party models itself on the Save Romania Union, which won 9% of the vote in Romania’s elections in December. But Yes Bulgaria’s chances of making it into parliament are uncertain, and the election is likely to be decided on economic issues, rather than the deeper question of corruption.

Fighting graft, nepotism and oligarchic power is seldom easy but Sofia’s record is poor. The European Union, which has issued semiannual reports on Bulgaria’s anti-corruption progress since it joined the union in 2007, has been relentlessly critical. Half of Bulgarians say the government is doing a poor job of fighting corruption, according to polling by Transparency International, a watchdog.

Yes Bulgaria’s founder, Hristo Ivanov, resigned as justice minister in Mr Borisov’s government in 2015 after parliament rejected reforms to the judicial system. He likens the Bulgarian state to a crumbling building. “The big question is whether we’ll let the building crush us when it falls, or demolish it ourselves so we can build something new and solid,” Mr Ivanov says. To establish the rule of law and improve the judicial system, he has recruited a slate of candidates with little or no prior experience in politics, many of them lawyers, IT specialists or doctors.

The party generated substantial enthusiasm when it was launched in January, drawing hundreds of people to its official launch. A month later three legal appeals were filed against its registration; in two cases the identities of the filers appeared to be fraudulent, raising questions about who was behind the moves. In the end Yes Bulgaria was forced to appear on a coalition ticket along with the Greens and one other marginal party, gathering some 20,000 petition signatures in just one day, well above the 3,000 required to register. It has raised more than 163,000 lev ($90,000) in small, individual donations, a rare accomplishment in Bulgarian politics. “We’ve been crowdfunding a political startup,” says Mr Ivanov.

But it is not clear that the excitement will translate into seats. Polls show Yes Bulgaria drawing perhaps 3% of the vote, short of the 4% threshold needed to enter parliament. Although the party has support in Sofia and other cities, “in small towns very few people know who Hristo Ivanov is,” says Boryana Dimitrova of Alpha Research, a pollster. Media outlets aligned with other parties have run articles attempting to discredit it; in early March some circulated a false news story that one of its more prominent candidates, Emil Jassim, a civic activist, had been beaten to death. On March 23rd Mr Jassim actually was assaulted on the street in Sofia, a development which doubtless surprised anyone who had believed reports of his demise.

The Socialists and GERB have both spent the campaign making generous promises to raise wages and pensions. Kornelia Ninova, the Socialist leader, has run on a Eurosceptic and pro-Moscow line, promising to block European Union sanctions against Russia and opposing the EU’s free-trade agreement with Canada. She plans to replace the country’s 10% flat income tax with a progressive-rate system, and favours a Russian-backed project to build a nuclear power plant, the country’s second. GERB has kept its stance on the plant ambiguous.

The government that emerges from the election is expected to be a fragile alliance of three or four parties. Regardless of whether GERB or the Socialists come in first, one likely junior partner is the United Patriots, an assemblage of small anti-Muslim nationalist parties. Other coalition candidates include the Movement for Rights and Freedom, which represents the ethnic Turkish minority, and Volia, a new populist party launched by the wealthy owner of a chain of pharmacies and petrol stations. Mr Ivanov’s crusade to clean up Bulgarian governance will be a long one.

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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