Back to the polls in Bulgaria

Anti-government protests ran for more than 150 days in 2013, the longest in the country since the fall of communism.

An election poster supporting the centre-right Reformist Bloc with the picture of Meglena Kuneva [EPA]
Sofia, Bulgaria – Bulgarians head to the polls on Sunday to elect what will be their fifth government in just 18 months. If predictions pan out, the election will bring to power an uncertain coalition government led by a former prime minister whose toppling in February 2013 started the whole cycle.

Many say the situation in Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest nation, has only worsened since then.

In February 2013, Bulgaria’s centre-right government of Boiko Borisov was forced to resign following mass protests over rising utility costs, austerity measures, and accusations of governmental mismanagement. Since then, three governments have come and gone, victims of instability and a vocal and unhappy population.

The elections on Sunday are meant to draw to a close the political uncertainty, but it is unclear if they will.

“These current elections are crucial for Bulgaria,” says Kancho Stoychev, an analyst with pollster Gallup International.
“Political reform is needed. People are tired, they are disgusted by all of the political parties and there are no ‘new hopes’ on the horizon to galvanise them,” he adds.

Political reform is needed. People are tired, they are disgusted by all of the political parties and there are no 'new hopes' on the horizon to galvanise them.

by - Kancho Stoychev, Gallup International

On the streets of the Bulgarian capital, political campaign posters cover shop windows and billboards, but in between, scrawled on the walls of buildings, are constant reminders of the many protests that have engulfed the country over the last two years; angry, anti-government graffiti as well as the yellow clenched fist used by student protesters who occupied their universities last fall in support of the large-scale protests that took place last year.

In 2013, nightly anti-government protests ran for more than 150 days straight, the longest in the country since the fall of communism 25 years ago.

The political instability has been compounded in recent months by economic failures that included runs on two of Bulgaria’s largest banks.

The failure in June of Corporate Commercial Bank, the fourth largest lender in the country, and the subsequent freezing of accounts due to accusations of fraud, have left over 200,000 depositors unable to access their money following a run on the bank that resulted in a fifth of deposits being removed. In recent weeks hundreds of the bank’s customers have staged protests on the streets of the Sofia, demanding access to their money.

The interim government has postponed making a decision on whether to bail out the bank, as well as on reforms in areas like healthcare, utility costs and dealing with the ballooning budget deficit, which has compounded the unease felt by many in Bulgaria.

“A lot of problems have been postponed until after the election, and none of the parties have fully explained what they will do to resolve them,” says Daniel Smilov, a political analyst with the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia.

“It is a period of great instability and this turmoil has pushed the country’s development back more than I expected, with the banking crisis doing the most serious damage. This kind of instability can’t go on forever,” he adds.

Rather than a long-term solution to the issues, polls suggest that as many as eight parties could take seats in the new Bulgarian parliament, passing the required threshold of four percent of the vote.

GERB, the centre-right party of Borisov, a former bodyguard of communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, is expected to get a third of the votes and upwards of 100 seats in the 240-seat parliament, which would force a new coalition government. Their partners in the coalition would likely include the Reformist Bloc, a coalition of several right-wing parties.

“Stability can only be brought about with conciliatory actions. Political instability is blocking reform and Bulgaria really needs reform. Most of the variations on coalitions won’t lead to stability,” says Gallup International’s Stoychev.

Borisov, whose party has run on the slogan “A Stable Bulgaria”, has said in recent interviews that a new election may be needed in 2015 if results don’t go their way.

“It is absolutely possible for Bulgaria to face new elections after the upcoming ones,” Borisov said in an interview with Bulgarian broadcaster bTV.

The political uncertainty and its impact on the country has left voters despondent.

“I don’t have any hopes for this election,” says Vladimir Vladimirov, 38, a Sofia native walking through the heart of the capital on Friday. “The only possible outcome that might work for the country is if the leading parties agree to work together. I just hope they can reach an agreement.”

“We are tired of elections every year,” says Boyko Bratanov, 41, a lawyer from Sofia. “There will be a coalition government, though I’m not sure this will be good for the country,” he says, adding he will probably vote for the Reformist Bloc.

Others told Al Jazeera they didn’t see a point in voting for any of the existing parties.

The worse thing is that now I am not asking friends who they will vote for, but rather if they will even vote.

by - Radina Banova, law student

Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007 but has remained its poorest member, with a population of seven million and an average monthly salary of about 400 euros ($500). According to Transparency International, the country is among the most corrupt in the EU, second only to Greece.

The recent political quagmire has hampered economic growth in the country.

“Eighteen months ago we expected Bulgaria to benefit from the recovery of central and eastern Europe, but that hasn’t happened,” says Ruslan Stefanov, director of the Economic Programme at the Sofia-based Center for the Study of Democracy.

“Internal risk has increased for the Bulgarian economy due to the political instability over the last 18 months,” he adds.

Sitting in a cafe near Sofia University, two students who were part of last year’s occupation of the university vent their frustration.

“We need hope but there is a huge lack of trust in the political system. People see year after year it isn’t working,” says Petar Nikolaev, a 26-year-old master’s student.

“Most parties here are populous, they aren’t willing to make painful reforms or plan long term, which is what we need for real change. We need strong politicians willing to sacrifice power and push through sometimes unpopular reforms.”

“We protested for a year and a half and we didn’t succeed in anything with a real material result,” says Radina Banova, a 24-year-old law student, sitting beside him. The worse thing is that now I am not asking friends who they will vote for, but rather if they will even vote. 
Source: Al Jazeera