The neoliberal project strikes back: Coming regime change in post-pandemic Bulgaria?

In recent years, Eastern European politics have quite often made headlines around the world. However, comments on the subject have been anything but flattering – and not without reason. Usually, journalists and politicians bemoan the “democratic retreat” affecting the region and the lack of Western-minded leadership. But the unstable political situation in Bulgaria seems to offer a first chance for neoliberal elites to retaliate. Will this really happen?

Complaints of the (neo) liberal media – Introduction

Since the 2010s, several commentators in the United States and Europe have suddenly become experts on Eastern Europe by writing bitter articles. Usually, the region only makes headlines because of the surreptitious regime change still underway in Poland and Hungary. Namely, commentators postulate people like Orban and Kaczyński as dictators forgetting that most voters support them (Figure 1). Meanwhile, few would recall that the European Union is also to blame for the region’s growing rejection of “liberal” values. For example, the region’s under-representation in EU institutions “seriously undermines support for EU institutions, values ​​and policies”. But most of these “experts” prefer to focus on how “populist” leaders are making Budapest and Warsaw “worse” than Brexit. They seldom focus on the many “weak spots that require further multi-level discussions” in post-socialist democracies in Eastern Europe.

In fact, the simple truth is that these attacks stem from a clear ideological agenda – which some unwittingly reproduce. In the end, those who demonize the leaders of Eastern Europe for their “macho” attitude are simply losers. In fact, they echo the laments of local neoliberal elites for their inability to mobilize consensus (Figure 1).

The return of the neoliberals – Is Hungary an exception?

However, despite significant differences between anti-government formations, a united “opposition” bloc is taking shape in some illiberal democracies in Eastern Europe. Interestingly, this strategy can yield the first concrete and positive results where illiberalism is at its peak: Hungary. As for “putting an end” to Orban’s reign, the Social Democrats, centrists and other neoliberals have agreed to put their “differences aside”. So much so that this rainbow coalition comprising six Hungarian parties is celebrating its primary at the time of writing. From now on, they are likely to select the liberal-green mayor of Budapest as the common candidate for prime minister. Few would make a more stark contrast to the Orban and its strong appeal to rural constituencies. But Hungary is an almost unique case. In addition to rigging the economic game in favor of his allies, Orban rewrote the constitution by making it much more “illiberal”.

So the tide of history seems to change direction, at least in Hungary. But illiberal rulers in the rest of Eastern Europe have had less spectacular and more recent success than Orban. Especially in EU member countries like Poland, Slovenia, Czechia and Bulgaria. For example, many criticize the Prime Minister of Slovenia for having “repeatedly and publicly attacked the” main public media in the country “. While the Polish Constitutional Court faces severe sentences for considering the subordination of EU law to the constitution and its politicization. Whereas exactly the same things happened in Hungary without anyone complaining. So the expectations of a weaker and slower aftershock are only natural.

The second piece of the puzzle: Bulgaria

In this context, the transformations of the Bulgarian center-right take on a whole new meaning and a much wider meaning. In fact, neoliberal elites seem intent on exploiting the pandemic-induced crisis to retain power beyond Hungary as well. Apparently, the first springboard in this process of “reclaiming” the region will be Bulgaria. After all, the protracted institutional crisis facing the country offers immense potential for new emerging leaders who advocate for radical change. For some time now, neoliberal forces have been on the verge of allying themselves with left-wing parties in the upcoming elections. Perhaps this quasi-cohesive coalition will manage to form a stable government after three consecutive snap elections in early 2022.

Therefore, it is worth paying more attention to what exactly is happening in the politics of the Bulgarian power. Namely, to identify which leaders are on the rise, which agenda is advancing and what their specific interests are.

The shrinking left opposition

Since the Communist Party’s auto-golpe in the 1990s, fair and competitive elections have been held regularly in Bulgaria. In the first democratic elections of their life, the voters attributed the victory to the ex-communist Bulgarian Social Party (BSP). Notably, unlike the German SPD and other socialists and social democrats in Western Europe, the BSP program combines social conservatism and economic interventionism. Indeed, since the devastating hyperinflation of winter 1996-1997, the BSP has managed to win only one election, in 2005. Nevertheless, the party remains the main political force of the traditional left floating between 15 and 25% of the votes. Thus, the BSP and its most left-wing factions represent the only real opposition to Prime Minister Boyko Borisov since 2009.

Or they did so until April 2021, when the party placed third in the general election for the second time in its history. Then the party narrowly avoided slipping to fourth place in the early elections of July 2021, a colossal debacle. However, the lost BSP votes did not compactly migrate to another leftist party. In fact, the only left-wing like-minded list, ISNI, only garnered around 5% of all votes in July. Thus, the Bulgarian center left has shrunk to more than 18% of the electorate. To know where these votes went, you have to look at what is happening on the right. In fact, the socially and economically liberal right of the center appears to have thrived during the pandemic.

The center-right between reckless populism …

The Bulgarian center-right has been quite effervescent since the end of real socialism. Notably because the anti-system bloc exploded into a myriad of smaller factions earlier than elsewhere in Eastern Europe. To be exact, the anti-communist coalition called Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) lost its hegemony in 2001. Subsequently, the UDF won just under 9% of the vote in 2005 before disappearing from electoral cards. In less than a decade, the center of the Bulgarian right has overtaken the UDF and its irrelevant successor parties. This is how Boyko Borisov, the populist mayor of Sofia, took the lead in this political segment with his personal party, the GERB. From 2009 until 2021, the party won overwhelming majorities in the popular vote (Figure 3). Thus, the GERB has long dominated the Bulgarian center-right as a whole, forcing small parties to accept its excessive patronage.

This balance became unstable in 2020, when Democratic bulgaria (DB), a coalition of neoliberal parties, has assumed considerable importance. With largely favorable coverage in many opposition media, DB rallied many of those disappointed by Borisov’s long tenure. Namely, in the last election, it garnered around 12% of preferences, ranking just fourth behind BSP. Obviously, in doing so, DB has “officially” become GERB’s number one opponent. But last month DB proved its determination to form any government; which makes him a sort of kingmaker.

… and neoliberal elitism

But the story does not end there for the Bulgarian neoliberal elites. In fact, this camp has a new rising leader: Kiril Petkov, former interim finance minister between May and August 2021. In fact, Petkov was a complete novice in politics before his presidential nomination to a ministerial post a few months ago. However, he soon learned to hide his secrets behind a thick smokescreen or counter allegations and cover-ups. More recently, he demonstrated these new skills in the “case” concerning his alleged dual nationality – then proven. In fact, Bulgarian ministers cannot hold any other nationality by law; but Petkov was a Canadian national until April 21. Yet he did not disclose the renunciation of his Canadian citizenship until some parliamentarians raised the issue publicly. Eventually Pertkov managed to come out of the woods by drawing attention to another topic: his new party.

In fact, Perkov and his colleague acting Minister of Economy, Asen Vasilev, announced the program “Let’s keep changing.”(Prodolzhavame promyanata, PP). At present, there is little doubt that the PP is a neoliberal party that mainly targets well-educated workers and liberal-minded young people. First of all, Petkov immediately distanced himself from his project from the popular but rather conservative President Roumen Radev. Second, Bulgaria was among the signatories to the OECD proposal to increase the minimum corporate tax rate to 12.5%. Yet PP will not support any tax increase despite Bulgaria adopting a 10% flat rate corporate tax. In addition, the PD program focuses on the business environment and foreign investment rather than redistribution and social rights. Consistently, the first parties to support Petkov and Vasilev’s project are “Volt” and “the European middle class” – both pro-EU and neoliberal.

Neoliberals raise their heads in Eastern Europe – Conclusion

All things considered, Petkov and Vasilev officially launched the PP just in time to participate in the upcoming elections in November. And the PP could win at least 9% of the vote, even if the list of candidates is not yet available. With the 15 to 16% expected from DB, the PP could tip the parliamentary balance in favor of the neoliberal right. Meanwhile, the traditional left and the populist left are in danger of visibly giving in. Even if the BSP manages not to go below DB, the ISNI still lingers above the electoral threshold of 4%. Thus, economically progressive forces could hold no more than 48 – and probably 40 – of the 240 available seats. Meanwhile, the neoliberal center-right could muster up to 60 seats and no less than 50, which makes it decisive for any realistic majority.

In conclusion. Boyko Borisov could become the first illiberal, but democratically elected prime minister of an EU country to be ousted by such an electoral bloc. The opposition financed by the EU and the United States defeated Vladimir Mečiar in the Slovak presidential election of 1999. Ultimately, Bulgarian illiberalism could be the first victim of the revenge of neoliberalism in Eastern Europe. ‘Is post-pandemic.

About Eleanor Blackburn

Check Also

Pray that Bosnia doesn’t happen to us – The Sun Nigeria

All that they always wished for us was pain, agony and such. We are convinced …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.