As rigidly neoliberal rules on spending and monetary policy push ordinary Bulgarians to despair, the Left needs to offer a coherent, credible alternative writes Dancho Medarov
Bulgarian elections failed to produce a clear winner as the country faces months of deep political uncertainty. No single party holds enough seats to form a stable majority government as political scandals and economic crisis worsen. The biggest protests since 1989 and the collapse of Communism overthrew GERB, the centre-right ruling party led by former bodyguard Boiko Borisov. Borisov resigned on 20 February after weeks of protests against rising energy bills, poverty, and corruption culminated in clashes with the police, and the self-immolation of six Bulgarians.
GERB has subsequently run into a major phone-hacking crisis, with former Interior Minister Tsvetvan Tsvetanov alleged by prosecutors to have used the secret services to run an illegal wire-tapping operation against political opponents. Meanwhile, widespread reports of ballot-rigging and vote-buying culminated in the seizure by police of 350,000 illegally-printed ballot papers on Saturday – representing about 10% of the total poll.
Despite the scandals, GERB topped of the poll, winning 30.53% of the vote on a dismal 50% turnout – a record low. The former Communists, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, came second on 26.65%, with Movement for Rights, largely supported by the Turkish minority, third at 11.22%. Ataka, fascists in almost all but name, running a campaign mixing demands to scrap Bulgaria’s flat tax with attacks on Muslim and Roma minorities, picked up 7.31% of the vote overall, the last party to clear the 4% bar to entering Parliament.
No party holds a majority. GERB is the largest, holding 97 seats out of 240, but is now incapable of finding a partner to govern with. The Socialist Party are moving to form a technocratic “programme government” of “experts”, with a non-party Prime Minister. But this government will be dependent on the votes of Ataka, who have ruled out participation in government but will be inclined to apply pressure as they see fit. Meanwhile, Borisov is contesting the ballot results and insisting on a re-run of the election.
It is not clear that a stable administration can be formed. Protests have already taken place, with crowds attempting to storm a GERB press conference last Sunday evening, demanding an annulment of the vote.
A crisis of neoliberalism, and a crisis of Europe
Bulgaria is the poorest member of the EU, joining (with Romania) only in 2007 after a lengthy entrance process. Poverty is chronic, with 22% of the population living below the poverty line – and this exceptionally concentrated amongst the Roma minority.
Salacious reporting in the UK, now egged on by the rise of Ukip, has tended to fixate on the poverty and the more obvious corruption, fuelling racism here. Bulgarians, like Romanians, already face official discrimination inside the EU, with restricted employment rights. Ukip and others are now calling for further official discrimination when those restrictions expire at the end of the year.
But we cannot blame ordinary Bulgarians for the political crisis today. It is part of the wider failure of the European project – and, in particular, the decisive neoliberal turn it has taken. For a while, the drive to closer European integration appeared to be benefitting Bulgaria. After the economic chaos of the 1990s, with recurring hyperinflation, bank failures, and a 40% collapse in GDP per capita, the 2000s appeared to be a period of relative stability. Unemployment fell from a peak of over 20% and the economy had recovered to its 1989 level of output by 2004. Growth reached as much as 6% a year.
Tight restrictions on spending, intended to meet EU rules, delivered budget surpluses for the government. The Bulgarian currency, the lev, was pegged to the euro, effectively taking powers to set monetary policy out of Bulgarian hands.
That neoliberal framework has been rigidly observed. At the level of party politics, everything appears to be in flux. New political parties have won elections twice in the last decade. Most Bulgarians voted differently in 2013 than they did in 2001. Yet the rotation of acronyms and personnel at the top has no meaningful impact on policy. GERB, the “Party for the European Development of Bulgaria” was simply the latest manifestation of this cycle, although perhaps more nakedly corrupt than previously.
But as the wider EU economy has faltered in the wake of the financial crisis, Bulgaria has been left with no available alternative. Wages are now falling, poverty and unemployment rising, with the latter now back up to 12%. Profiteering in basic services like electricity, led by privatised energy concerns, helped drive protests earlier this year. And governments, locked into neoliberal politics, have turned into little more than gangs looking to preserve their own interests – while imposing austerity measures.
The response of the major EU powers has been to insist on business as usual. Angela Merkel has even held up Bulgaria as an example of successful austerity for others, like Greece, to follow. But it is the imposition of rigidly neoliberal rules on spending and monetary policy that is pushing ordinary Bulgarians to despair. The future looks increasingly bleak, with no alternative in sight.
The protests of February were large enough to see off a government. But they have not been able to form an alternative political leadership – worse, there are suggestions that one of the new parties established out of the movement, Orlov Most, was colluding with GERB. The Greens and the Bulgarian Left both failed to reach even 1% of the vote. It is little surprise that, in this situation, the ultra-nationalists and the fascists can gain ground.
Antonio Gramsci wrote of an “organic crisis” in society, in which “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”. Protests will undoubtedly continue, whatever arrangements are made at the top of society. But unless the left can begin to offer a coherent, credible alternative to neoliberalism, the “morbid symptoms” of corruption and social decay will continue.