Can Europe Make It?

Out-lying the outlier: election results in Bulgaria

Nikolay Nikolov
6 June 2014

The European Parliament elections were, as expected, a time when voters would tell their establishments that they did not like the way things were going. As expected, the Eurosceptics in France and the UK broke through and received significant national support – in France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front (which vows to ‘defend France’) won its first national election and is sending 24 MEPs to Brussels; in the UK, Nigel Farage’s anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) pulled off a similar triumph (in the words of Mr. Farage: ‘The UKIP fox is in the Westminster henhouse’) also getting 24 MEPs in.

In Spain and Greece, two of the most hard-hit European economies, the far-left (Eurosceptic) alternative, as well as growing support for nationalist far-right parties, were clearly reflected in the results. In Greece, the Syriza party won 26.6% of the vote, building on a hard-line criticism of the IMF/EU bailout in Greece, regarded as ‘catastrophic’. In Spain, the new radical left Podemos (‘We Can’) inaugurated by the 2011 indignatos protest movement also gained serious ground, surging to fourth place. Their founder’s (Pablo Iglesias, a thirty-something political science university teacher) key message: ‘We do not want to be a German colony’.

The rise of Euroscepticism was expected, from both the left and the right – it has been five years of economic suffering, badly managed policies, and even more poorly communicated messages to the public. It simply makes historical sense that there is a surge in the populist vote and that the European leaders are all talking about reforming the ‘big, bad, and bumbling’ EU. What must be noted, however, is that out of the 751 seats in the European parliament, a huge chunk – 467 seats – stayed with the 3 pillars of traditional politics - the centre-right European People’s Party, the (centre)left Socialists and the centrist Liberals. Not to mention the seats (53) won by the really pro-EU Green parties. This ‘political earthquake’ of scepticism is just from 25%.

In the new EU member states, election results showed a similar pattern – in Poland, which holds the largest number of seats among the new EU states, the results showed a balance between the Civic Platform and the more radical Law and Justice Party. Hungary’s conservative right-wing Fidesz won an overwhelming 51% as Jobbik’s far-right dropped its support to an unimpressive 15%. In Slovakia, election results aside, what is most visible is the negligible voter turn-out – 13%.

Down south, in Bulgaria, the elections had almost nothing to do with the state of the EU, austerity policies, the future of Europe, or any of the dominant debates and discourses from around the continent. In Bulgaria, plain and simple, it was about whether Bulgaria is going to look to the EU in the future or not. And more specifically, the election results were going to be a crucial ‘heads-up’ to the shockingly unpopular Socialist-led coalition in Bulgaria.

The political instability in Bulgaria is disheartening. On the surface, the election results showed a decisive victory for the centre-right opposition party GERB (30.5%), which resigned last year after street protests, and a humiliating defeat for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which failed to reach 20%.

This was a huge blow to both Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski and the Socialist Party and Party of the European Socialists leader, Sergey Stanishev. With an increasingly defiant show of unaccountability, Stanishev did not acknowledge the results as a failure and refused to step down – on the contrary, he will become the Socialist Party’s second MEP in Brussels.

Oresharski took it upon himself to refuse the call for early elections, while popular support for his government shrunk to under 10%, street protests continue on a daily basis and will mark their one year anniversary on June 14, the National Assembly building already barricaded by a metal wall and a significant show of police force.

In Belgium, Spain, and Hungary, socialist leaders all resigned due to weak election results. In Bulgaria, the situation defies the mould. The newest development is that the European Commission has formally asked the Bulgarian government to suspend work on Gazprom’s South Stream gas-pipeline project, which is seen as non-compliant with EU law. The Socialist-led coalition government in their own right have vowed ‘to fight’ this decision and plan to continue with the project, which will bring Bulgaria’s dependence closer to Russia, despite potential EU sanctions.

In itself, the European parliament election process was marred by irregularities. A new populist movement, Bulgaria Without Censorship, led by former TV-anchor Nikolay Barekov, was the largest recipient of the ‘corporate pull’ spending a staggering one million Euros on its election campaign.  His movement is criticised for having close links with the Tsvetan Vassilev, owner of the Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB), and Delyan Peevski, the controversial MP who sparked the street-protests twelve months ago.

During election day and the days that followed, a series of news reports showed the significant amount of schemes used to purchase votes which target the underprivileged and the Roma community. Individuals interviewed confessed to being offered up to 25 euros for their vote. On a much higher level, a scandal revolving around the Socialist party revealed how the directors of a mining company in the town of Bobov Dol tell their workers that they ‘might fall into debt’, should they fail to ‘vote the right way’.

The far right-wing vote, traditionally captured by the party Ataka, has plummeted and they have been unable to pass the barrier in the EP elections. Their fall from grace is closely linked with their shift in rhetoric following the annexation of Crimea and the Russian involvement in Ukraine. Overnight, Ataka became profoundly pro-Russian and violently Eurosceptic. As a result, they got around 3% of the vote.

Effectively, what the results illustrate, is that Bulgaria’s political situation is dangerously unstable. Its place within the EU is significantly undermined by a government set on following a pro-Russian agenda. Civic dissatisfaction is on an all-time high, as an overwhelming majority of the electorate show a strong desire – both in the polls and on the streets – for new elections.

With no clear political casualties and no responsibility taken, Bulgaria is in a state of flux, its fragile democracy continuing to falter. Most worryingly, it seems that not only is democracy not ‘the only game in town’ any longer, but the European Union’s authority is increasingly disregarded. Unlike other European nations, where the election results clearly reflect the people’s desire for change, the Bulgarian case shows, if anything, that despite the results, despite the evident demands for change by the people, despite growing dissatisfaction and protests, political change seems highly unlikely ever to come from the bottom-up. 

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