Can Europe Make It?

Post-democracy: there's plenty familiar about what is happening in Bulgaria

Post-democracy is the latest wave of post-communist transformation – the result of state capture and the alienation of citizens from the democratic project.

Anna Krasteva
20 November 2019, 8.33am
Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov welcomes European Council president Donald Tusk to Varna, March, 2018.
NurPhoto/PA. All rights reserved.

Six months, six years, six decades – this is how Ralf Dahrendorf (1990) summed up, in a remarkably succinct way, the post-democratic transition: creating the institutions of parliamentary democracy, laying the foundations of a market economy, building civil society.

The future looked clear and bright as a single three-dimensional transformation joining the ‘end of history’. I want to offer a different idea of the three transformations taking place over the last three decades: post-communist, (national) populist, post-democratic.

A key criterion for distinguishing between these transformations is what Philippe C. Schmitter in 1994 called “symbolic-ideological hegemony” or what Charles Tilly (1975) defined as the elite project that dominates the political scene: that is a project that dominates discourses, strategies and policies, on the one hand, and values and attitudes on the other.

In addition, we need two further pairs of indicators. The first pair examines the (non-)existence of an explicitly formulated political project as well as its (self-)designation by elites and citizens. To what extent has it been explicitly declared to be a project whose definition and realization are undertaken by significant groups of elites and citizens? Here the key example is democratization, a political label that has been unanimously accepted by elites, citizens and analysts. In the case of post-democracy, the situation is the exact opposite: no political actor ventures to use this negative term, and this in itself is a source of politico-psychological comfort. The second pair of indicators covers both the supply side and the demand side of agency: on the one hand, the perspective and role of elites, and on the other hand, the perspective and role of citizens.

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This analysis is based on the Bulgarian case, but these ideas have a larger validity.

Democratic transformation

“And it should be considered that nothing is more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than to put oneself at the head of introducing new orders,” Machiavelli tells us. What is amazing about post-communist democratization is the exact opposite – how easily the democratic discourse became dominant and how quickly its symbolic-ideological hegemony was established and claimed as an “unparalleled success story.” Democratization was an explicitly formulated and designated political project realized with the consensus and contribution both of elites and citizens. The elites contributed – “with a small margin, but forever,” according to the iconic phrase coined by the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) leaders after the party won democratic elections for the first time in October 1991 – with a pluralist party system, peaceful change of power, and the geopolitical reorientation of Bulgaria through Euro-Atlantic and European integration. The citizens guaranteed the foundation of the democratic transformation in two ways: through their enduring and relatively high commitment to democratic values, and through protests attempting to act as a corrective to often irresponsible and ineffective governance.

Democratic transformation in Bulgaria was designed with a strategic and long-term horizon. The country’s actual political development, however, significantly modified this optimistic vision and only a decade and a half after the beginning of the transition set out to “transform the transformation.”

National-populist transformation

“In … its frontal attack on the liberal-democratic order and its protagonists, the radical right becomes a transformative force, and can indeed be said to be transforming the transformation” – this is how Мichael Minkenberg diagnosed the reversal of the democratic transformation. National-populism emerged on the Bulgarian political scene in the form of a democratic paradox: in the 1990s, democracy was fragile, but there were no strong radical far right parties; once democracy was consolidated, radical right-wing parties appeared, such as Ataka in 2005, and immediately achieved success. Thereafter we see a multiplication and diversification of far-right political actors, on the one hand, but a single enduring symbolic cartography on the other: identitarianism, post-secularism and statism. The identitarian pole concentrates on the overproduction of Othering (Roma, immigrants, LGBT, etc.) giving rise to a politics of fear. The religionization of politics and the political instrumentalization of religion is a fundamental post-communist: “Orthodox solidarity” was the title of Ataka’s programme in several elections and this is crucial to the post-secularist message. Bringing the state back into politics and revitalizing it in the face of neoliberalism is the core of the third pole, statism and the politics of sovereignty. This takes the paradoxical form of an “international nationalism” – Bulgarian nationalism closely tied to Russia.

But the national populist transformation did not properly get under way when radical far-right parties like Ataka emerged, but when mainstream parties and actors – instead of making a cordon sanitaire – began increasingly imitating the far-right. The most glaring example is the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). Its leader, Korneliya Ninova, quickly transformed the BSP into a conservative-nationalist party with standpoints diametrically opposed to those of the Party of European Socialists. The most remarkable U–turn was when Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, the strongest leader of the transition in Bulgaria, came under nationalist ideological domination, rejecting the Istanbul Convention, and refusing to participate in the Global Compact for Migration.

Another aspect of this mainstreaming of rightwing populism is the transformation of civil society into an uncivil society through the media’s aesthetic glorification of extremist “bad guys.” Vigilantes who catch refugees along the borders, leaders of football hooligans, and young people attending torch-lit marches commemorating fascist leaders have become the darlings of the Bulgarian media. Here, two opposing processes interfere with and intensify each other: ordinary extremists are turned into media heroes; media celebrities are transformed into attractive bad guys.

The national-populist transformation is the first to reverse the direction of the democratic transformation. Whereas the first transformation began from the centre – not in the partisan but in the political sense, as a critical majority of politicians and citizens joined together in favour of consolidating Bulgaria’s democratization – the second began from the national-populist far right, but through mainstreaming gradually encompassed mainstream actors like the BSP, President Rumen Radev, and the fluid Coat of Arms Party (GERB) which is always taking one step forward and two steps back, but whose fluctuations revolve ever more consistently around the national-populist axis.

The national-populist transformation in Bulgaria has not yet crystallized into an illiberal democratic project. The fluid position of Boyko Borisov and GERB allows them from time to time to withhold their support for the liberal-democratic project of the first transformation without turning into a carrier of the national-populist transformation. This fluid nature of GERB will make them an important figure in the third, post-democratic, transformation.

Post-democratic transformation

[D]emocracies may stumble on without satisfying the aspirations of their citizens and without consolidating an acceptable and predictable set of rules for political competition and cooperation: … a “lingering demise,” whereby democracy gradually dissolves and transforms itself into a different kind of domination. (Schmitter 1994: 58–59)

It is precisely this “lingering demise” in which democracy is what it is and increasingly becomes what democracy is not, that we need to analyse here. This is based on Colin Crouch’s concept of post-democracy as a process in which the democratic institutions continue to exist but increasingly turn into a hollow shell, as the engine of development and change shifts away from them and the democratic agora, and towards narrow private non-transparent economic-political circles.

One characteristic manifestation of this third transformation, and a key actor, is the post-democratic party: in it, activists are replaced by lobbyists and campaigns by capital. The post-democratic party maintains close contacts less with the inside circle of its activists than with the “ellipse” of its “rings of firms”. The post-democratic party is an ideal type whose manifestations can be found in a number of parties: the three best examples are the development of GERB as an ideology-free, clientelistic party; the transformation of the Movement of Rights and Freedoms, (DPS) from a party of the ethnic Turkish minority into a party of rings of firms; and Volya (Will) – the latest example of a business project becoming a party.

The three key features of this third, post-democratic transformation are state capture, social inequalities, and abstentionism. State capture involves the transition from corruption as a deviation from the system to a fundamental transformation of the political system itself which is increasingly dominated by “policy for cash”. Bulgaria occupies an unenviable first place as the most corrupt country in the EU: with a Corruption Perceptions Index of 42/100 versus an average of 64.6/100 for the EU, it ranks 77th in the world. The second transition, well-summarized by Stoĭcho Stoĭchev, is from the absence of an anti-corruption policy to an absent state, and from there to a “preyed-upon” state and ultimately state capture:

An institutional vacuum has been created and it has been filled by non-public (corruption) regulations. The institutions are inactive, except when they are used for resource distribution or private score-settling among rival clientelistic networks (oligarchic circles). These networks, which include criminals, businessmen, politicians, police officers, judges, prosecutors, public figures and religious persons,[1] create a parallel regulatory order. The centre of power in this type of state is outside its institutions. The informal prevails over the public at all levels and in the private lives of people.

This “absent” state, in which institutions formally exist but have been emptied of the common interest and captured by narrow private interests, and in which the different branches of government do not control each other but are intertwined in informal networks which have appropriated the true centre of power, is the manifestation par excellence of post-democratic transformation.

Bulgaria holds another unenviable record, too – of the EU member country with the highest income inequality. In 2017 the ratio of total income received by the 20% of the population with the highest income to that received by the 20% of the population with the lowest was 8.2. In 2018 it decreased to 7.66, but in both years Bulgaria held first place in this negative ranking. Social inequalities are not causally connected to post-democracy, but they are an important factor in the disappointment of citizens, and the growing conviction that after a three-decade-long post-communist transition, politics continues to drift away from them, as they do they from politics.

High income inequalities expose the existence of social deficits and imbalances. But abstentionism – both as a protest vote and as self-exclusion from a political process which is perceived as excluding people – is a clear political manifestation of the disengagement of citizens. Since 1990, voter turnout in parliamentary elections has declined both in percentage and absolute numbers: from 1990 to 2017 the total population in Bulgaria declined from 8.7 million to 7 million, while the number of people who voted in parliamentary elections decreased from 6.1 million to 3.4 million.

Post-democracy is the latest wave of post-communist transformation. It is the result of state capture and the alienation of citizens from the democratic project – socially through inequalities and politically through voter abstentionism. Yet the post-democratic transformation is the most invisible because it does not propose a new political project, but leaches away from democracy attractiveness, content, a horizon, a “metaphysic of hope”.

Comparing the three transformations

“At what point can democrats heave a sigh of relief?” (di Palma, quoted in Kanev 1995).

This analysis has shown that the answer is, at no point: the post-communist political temporality is dynamic, and the country’s development has been reversible and unpredictable, going through three transformations – a democratic, a national-populist, and a post-democratic transformation – in just three decades.

Democratization began with a strong, long-term consensual project with a dual message – radical domestic politico-economic reform allowing inclusion in a global “end of history.” It was constructed and consolidated through the participation both of reformist elites and engaged citizens. The national-populist transformation began not with the creation of radical far-right parties but with the adoption of their discourse and political agenda by a growing number of mainstream political actors: by the BSP and partly by GERB and President Rumen Radev. Unlike the first transformation, where the internal identity of the project and its external evaluation crystallized into one and same term, democratization, in this second transformation they diverged: its authors designated themselves as a patriotic wave, while scholarly analysis has diagnosed this as national-populism. Post-democracy is not a project that has been publicly declared and won. It is rather the result of state capture and the rejection of key democratic achievements, such as rule of law and an authentic separation of powers. There are not and will not be any political actors who will identify themselves by the term, “post–democracy”.

The degree of symbolic-ideological hegemony also varies considerably. It is undoubtedly the strongest during democratization, when the key battles were tactical – shock therapy or gradual reform? – not strategic. The second wave is more ambiguous: on the one hand, national-populism has become increasingly dominant; on the other, the social, intellectual, and political proponents of democratization have continued to offer an alternative. Post-democracy has the weakest symbolic-ideological influence, because the latter is an erosion of democracy but without any alternative project, leaving it incapable of bearing substantial political capital.

The citizens and elites interact in different ways in the three transformations. A critical mass of citizens and significant circles of elites interfered in order to ensure a solid social-political basis for the democratic transformation. The electoral niche of the far right is around 10–15%, but its influence on public policies and attitudes is incomparably bigger and it has succeeded in downgrading the democratic ethos. The national-populist transformation was also realized with the participation both of elites and citizens: the political discourses of Othering have crystallized into growing xenophobic attitudes, extremist practices such as “refugee hunting” and their media heroization, ensuring the transformation of civil society into uncivil society.

Post-democracy has set in because of the appropriation of politics, benefits, and the state by narrow politico-economic oligarchic circles. When it comes to state capture, no one is “innocent”. As Venelin Ganev puts it, “larger constituencies are involved in predatory elite projects.” The key responsibility for the post-democratic transformation rests with the elites, while citizens either suffer its consequences, such as the breakdown of the rule of law, a growing Gini index and social inequalities, or are passively complicit by abstaining from voting, disengaging from politics, and not proposing alternatives.

Could the citizens who have constituted themselves as active and engaged citizens in the post-communist period ever succeed in reversing the tendency of erosion of democratization and in opening up a horizon for a fourth, positive, transformation? This remains to be seen.


Crouch, C. 2004. Post-Democracy (Cambridge: Polity Press).

Ganev, V. I. 2007. Preying on the State: The Transformation of Bulgaria after 1989 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).

Kanev, D. 1995. “Za perspektivite na konsolidat͡sii͡a na demoktrat͡sii͡ata” [On the prospects of consolidation of democracy], Politicheski izsledvanii͡a [Political Studies] 3: 237–43.

Machiavelli, N. 1998. The Prince. 2nd ed. (trans. Harvey C. Mansfield; Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press [Italian original, 1532]).

Magnette, P. 1999. La citoyenneté européenne (Bruxelles: Editions de l’Université Libre de Bruxelles).

Power, T. J. and M. M. Taylor. 2011. “Introduction: Accountability Institutions and Political Corruption in Brazil,” in T. J. Power and M. M. Taylor (eds.), Corruption and Democracy in Brazil: The Struggle for Accountability (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press): 1–28.

Schmitter, P. C. 1994. “Dangers and Dilemmas of Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 5 (2): 57–74.

Stoĭchev, S. 2017. Kontroliranii͡at i kupen vot kato instrument za zavladi͡avane na dŭrzhavata ot organizirani prestŭpni mrezhi: politicheski riskove i tendendt͡sii [Controlled and bought votes as an instrument for state capture by organized crime networks: political risks and tendencies] (Sofia: St. Kliment Ohridski University Press).

Tilly, C. 1975. “Reflections on the History of European State-Making,” in C. Tilly (ed.), The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press): 3–83.

Transparency International. 2018. Corruption Perceptions Index 2018.

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