Home News For Bulgarian voters, it’s Groundhog Day again

For Bulgarian voters, it’s Groundhog Day again

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2024 is a big, high-stakes year for citizens of the United States, United Kingdom, India, and dozens of other countries around the world. election year.

For Dimitar Naydenov, a Bulgarian lawmaker and restaurateur, it’s just another Groundhog Day: Bulgaria will vote for a new parliament in June, its sixth general election in three years. If you include presidential and European parliamentary elections, the total number of elections in these years is even higher – eight.

“The same thing over and over again. “I’m so tired. Mr. Nednov said he shuddered at the thought that he would soon be back doing what he does before every election day – setting up a campaign tent in the central square of the Black Sea port city of Burgas. Standing several times a day for hours begging passers-by to vote.

“I’ve done it so many times that people start to feel sympathy for me,” he said.

But pity the Bulgarian voters too. They keep voting, only to find that the politicians they choose are unable to form a stable government. Back to the polls, they’re gone. again and again.

Bulgaria is part of a broader problem shared by much of Europe, especially the former communist countries in the east: deep disillusionment with politicians and even the democratic process. However, as the poorest country in the European Union, one of the most corrupt countriesBulgaria has experienced an unusually high level of democratic dysfunction and indifference.

On the face of it, Bulgaria’s two main political parties have little to disagree on their stated ideologies. With the exception of the ultra-nationalist Ennahda Party, whose support has risen sharply in three years of successive elections, all parties express strong support for Bulgaria’s membership of NATO and the EU and are hostile to Russia over its military actions. full scale invasion of ukraine.

But they are deeply divided over how to tackle corruption and how to purge state institutions of influence, which they each blame on rivals.

Voter turnout plummets to 40% last general electionheld less than a year ago, from 83% of first votes cast in post-communist eraOr the 1991 Parliament.

However, turnout has been fairly low in a series of recent polls, suggesting that while a majority of voters see the election as meaningless, public disillusionment has leveled off and many have not yet given up.

“Our electorate is very unstable and looking for a savior,” said Ruza Smilova, a political science professor at the University of Sofia in the Bulgarian capital.

After the turmoil that followed the collapse of communism, Bulgarians turned to their former king Simon Saxe-Coburg Gotha, who returned after half a century in exile to form a political party. In 2001, he was elected prime minister on a promise to transform the country in just 800 days.

Although he did allow Bulgaria to join NATO in 2004, he did not do so. He lost electoral support and retired from politics.

“Messianic figures,” Smilova says, “often only create disappointment and lead people to look for another savior.” Or, they can lead people to lose faith in the system and withdraw from politics.

According to a survey, only 27% of Bulgarians Globsec’s survey last year showed that A research group believes in their government. That’s down from 35% in 2020 and lower than the 39% public trust rate in authorities in neighboring Romania, another often troubled former communist country.

Romania has seen a recent surge in support for far-right parties ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections later this year. But unlike Bulgaria, the country’s government is a shaky coalition of left and center-right liberals that has managed to hold on to power for four shaky years.

Using elections to try and break Bulgaria’s political deadlock, so far in vain, is at least a sign that the country has broken free from the artificial stability of the communist era, in which the same party always won and ruled unchallenged from 1946 to 1989.

But some worry voters, tired of the constant unrest, may choose a would-be strongman leader who promises an iron fist and order.Slovak voters did just that in September’s legislative elections.

“I’m worried that after so many elections, people will be ready to say: ‘Great, we finally have a strong, stable leadership,'” said Vesela Cher, a former foreign policy adviser to Bulgaria’s short-lived coalition government. Vessela Tcherneva said. Deputy Director, European Council on Foreign Relations, Sofia.

In 2006, when the EU approved Bulgaria’s membership application, then-Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev declared: “This is the real and final fall of the Berlin Wall for Bulgaria.”

In many ways, however, the wall still stands because of one of the most pernicious and enduring legacies of communism—the capture of state institutions by entrenched political and business interests.

“The post-communist transformation is not yet complete. It is no longer a question of communism as an ideology, but of whether institutions should be independent,” said Kirill Petkov, another former prime minister, referring to It’s the courts, regulators, prosecutors and state-owned companies.

Petkov, a Harvard-educated leader of a party that says it wants to break the grip of vested interests on law enforcement and the judiciary, became prime minister in 2021 for what was supposed to be a four-year term. A coalition government united under the slogan “zero tolerance for corruption”. He lasted seven months.

“As we have discovered over the past few years, the system is very resilient,” said Dimita Bychev, Bulgarian Lecturer at the School of Global and Area Studies at the University of Oxford. “It creates corruption and clientelism, so there is not enough power to reform the status quo,” he added.

this The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions last year Five current and former Bulgarian officials from across the political spectrum, including two former ministers, have been accused of “widespread involvement in corruption,” including alleged bribery of judges and officials.

Announcing the unusual move to freeze the assets of influential figures in EU member states, the Finance Ministry said the five men’s “different profiles and long-term prominence in Bulgarian politics demonstrate that corruption is deeply entrenched in ministries, political parties and state-owned enterprises” in the industry, and demonstrating the urgent need for political will to implement rule of law reforms and combat corruption. “

The last round of U.S. sanctions in 2021 targeted former media tycoon and Bulgarian leader Delyan Peevski. political party Ostensibly representing the interests of Türkiye’s ethnic minorities.Mr Pejewskiaccording to the U.S. Treasury Department”, “Often engaged in corruption, using influence and bribery to protect themselves from public scrutiny and to exert control over key institutions. “

Over the years, new populist parties have emerged that promise a new beginning, eroding support for mainstream forces. The Attack party, led by a far-right TV presenter, briefly rose to prominence but has now been overtaken by Ennahda, whose ultra-nationalist wing is reported to have emerged. opinion polls, has grown from a small fringe group in 2021 to the third most popular party in the country.

Bulgaria’s most enduring potential savior is Boyko Borisov, a three-time prime minister and former bodyguard who first rose to prominence as the mayor of Sofia, portraying himself as Bulgaria’s Batman – a tough, no-nonsense The Avengers, he will eradicate Gotham’s corruption. and instability.

Instead, he battled a series of corruption scandals involving himself and his close allies. One of the most embarrassing incidents occurred in 2020, when a photo appeared in the news media showing the Prime Minister sleeping naked in his official residence with a pistol next to his bedside table. Other photos show the nightstand drawers Stuffed with 500 euro banknotes and gold ingots.

Borisov said he usually keeps a pistol nearby, but the photos had been doctored and viewed as politically motivated slander. He said voters, not leaked images, would decide his fate, boasting that “no one can beat me in the election.”

He lost the next election and eventually ceded power to Petkov. Petkov is the founder of the We Continue Change party, which has vowed to unite voters by breaking corrupt ties between politics and business and shielding the judiciary and other state institutions from influence. Politics and money.

But with Petkov’s party trailing in the polls, Borisov is likely to make a comeback, at least temporarily, when voters go to the polls again in June.

Petkov, who now faces his fifth election since leaving office and lacks the funds to fund another campaign, said in an interview that his vote for June would break the political deadlock and deliver clear change. Empowerment is no longer hopeless.

“I’m exhausted,” he said.

Borjana Jambazova Reporting from Sofia, Bulgaria.

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