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 fluid 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 the likes of Orban and KaczyÅski as dictators forget that most voters supports them (Figure 1). Meanwhile, few people 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 is âseriously undermine support for the EUthe institutions, values ââand policies of ââ. But most of these “experts” prefer to focus on how “populist“The leaders make Budapest and Warsaw”worseThan Brexit. They seldom focus on the many “fragile points which require more multi-level discussions âin post-socialist democracies in Eastern Europe.
In fact, the simple truth is that these attacks stem from a clear ideological agenda – that some reproduce without their knowledge. Ultimately, those who demonize the leaders of Eastern Europe for their “macho“ attitude are simply grief losers. In fact, they echo the lamentations of local neoliberal elites for their inability to exploit the consensus (Chart 1).
The return of the neoliberals – Is Hungary an exception?
However, despite significant differences between anti-government formations, a united âoppositionâ bloc is taking shape in some illiberal democracies in Eastern Europe. It is interesting to note that this strategy can give the first concrete and positive results when illiberalism is at its peak: Hungary. As for “endâIn the reign of Orban, social democrats, centrists and other neoliberals agreed to put theirâside differencesâ. 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 Budapest liberal-green mayor as their common candidate for the post of Prime Minister. Few would make a more stark contrast to the Orban and its strong attraction 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 Slovenian Prime Minister for having “repeatedly and publicly attacked the country’s âmain public mediaâ. As the Polish Constitutional Court faces severe convictions for considering the subordination of EU law to the constitution and its politicization. While 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 reality, neoliberal elites seem to intend to exploit the crisis induced by the pandemic to keep the power beyond Hungary as well. Apparently, the first stepping stone in this process of âreclaimingâ the region will be Bulgaria. After all, the prolonged The institutional crisis facing the country offers immense potential for the emergence of new leaders arguing for radical change. For some time now, neoliberal forces about to ally with the left-wing parties in the next elections. Maybe, this quasi-cohesive coalition will manage to form a stable government after three consecutive early 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 in their lives, voters lent 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 only managed to win an election, in 2005. Nevertheless, the party remains the main political force of the traditional left, floating between 15 and 25% of the vote. Thus, the BSP and its most left-wing factions represent the only real opposition to Prime Minister Boyko Borisov since 2009.
Or they did it until April 2021, when the party ranked third in the legislative elections for the second time in their history. Then the party narrowly avoided slipping in fourth up to 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 like-minded list on the left, ISNI, came together just about 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 center right 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 since 2001. Subsequently, the UDF gained slightly less than 9% of the votes in 2005 before disappear 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 the majority of votes cast (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 grown in 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 became The number one opponent of the GERB ‘officially’. But last month DB proved their determination to train all government; do it a kind 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 appointment to a ministerial post few months ago. However, he learned quite quickly to hide his secrets behind a thick curtain of smoke or counter-allegations and concealment. Most recently, he proved these new skills during the case concerning his alleged – then found – dual nationality. 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 get out of the woods by calling attention to a different 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 the moment, there is little doubt that the PP is a neoliberal party that mainly targets well-educated, liberal-minded workers youth. First of all, Petkov distanced himself and his project of popular but fairly conservative President Roumen Radev immediately. Second, Bulgaria was among the signatories to the OECD proposal to increase the minimum corporate tax rate to 12.5%. However, PP will not bear any tax increase despite the fact that Bulgaria adopts a corporate tax flat rate of 10%. In addition, the PD program focuses on business environment and foreign investment rather than redistribution and social rights. Consistently, the first formations to support the project of Petkov and Vasilev are “Volt” and “European middle class” – the two 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 PP can win at least 9% votes, 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 at risk 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 on EU-US-funded opposition defeated Vladimir MeÄiar in the Slovak presidential elections of 1999. Ultimately, Bulgarian illiberalism could be the first victim of the revenge of neoliberalism in post-pandemic Eastern Europe.