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23rd Jul 2018

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Angry Bulgarians feel EU membership has brought few benefits

  • Protests in Bulgaria last year (Photo: Uwe Hiksch)

For Bulgarians 2013 was marked by two phenomena: protests and political intrigue.

The year started with the biggest nationwide demonstrations in 16 years. In early February, people took to the streets to protest against high electricity prices and austerity measures.

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In a surprise move, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, leader of the ruling centre-right GERB party, which is a member of the European People's Party, resigned in February and the country went to the polls on 12 May.

But the results did not bring an end to the discontent.

Boyko Borisov's GERB got 31 percent of the vote, making it the first party since the fall of communism to win two consecutive elections.

However it lost a third of the vote it received in 2009 – winning only 98 deputies in the 240-seat assembly – and therefore lost its majority in the parliament.

The left-wing Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) received 27 percent of the vote; the Turkish party Movements for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) scooped 11 percent; and Ataka ("Attack"), an extreme right-wing nationalist party, received 7 percent.

Turnout was at a record low – just above 50 percent.

The government that followed, a coalition between the Socialist and the Turkish minority parties, was the result of backroom deals.

According to the National Statistics Institute, 1,343,007 out of 7,364,570 Bulgarians voted for this combination.

Unhappy at home

With social unrest and frustration about poor living standards and corruption rising, such a government was always likely to be politically unstable.

Soon after the elections, on June 14, media mogul Delyan Peevski was appointed head of the State Agency of National Security (DANS).

Protests broke out once more. Within an hour tens of thousands of Bulgarians had gathered in front of the parliament. Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski rescinded the appointment and apologised but the initial protest had already turned into an anti-government movement demanding resignation.

Oresharski refused to step down and the protests went on, sending the three-week-old government into a deep political crisis.

Bulgarians were outraged that Peevski, who heads up a growing media empire that backs whichever government is in power, should be given access to classified information and the power to decide on arrests and wiretaps.

Even when his appointment was withdrawn, tens of thousands of Bulgarians kept up a daily protest, demanding the resignation of the Prime minister – something Oresharski refused to do.

The constitutional court reinstated Peevski as an MP on 25 October prompting thousands of students to occupy Sofia University, temporarily shutting down the biggest university in the country.

All three protests, though different in their origins, sprung from the same frustration with corruption and oligarchy. Some 51 percent of citizens support the anti-government protests, according to Alpha Research.

Official statistics lend weight to this anger: only 14 percent of new appointments in the state administration during the last six months were the result of a public competition.

Some say the protests created a new civil society and a new political environment where governments will no longer be able to get away with clientelism. But others note that the demonstrations did not manage to bring the government down.

It is in this politically toxic environment that European elections will take place on 25 May. The political situation is so fragile that the day may also see national parliament elections held too.

Although there are just three months to go until the EU vote, there is little sign of it to date.

The parties’ lists are not ready and campaigning has not yet started.

Polls show that 38 percent of Bulgarians will not bother to vote. But those who do go to the urns are likely to give the Bulgarian Socialist Party the largest share of the vote (19 percent), followed by the centre-right GERB (18 percent), the Turkish minority party 6 percent and the Reformist bloc, a newly-formed rightist grouping, 4 percent.

The far-right Ataka would get around 2 percent, representing a substantial loss. In 2007 Ataka got 14 percent in the European Parliament elections. Its support has been dwindling ever since. In the national elections in 2009 it got 9 percent and in 2013 this fell to 7 percent.

But the party, which wants "Bulgaria for Bulgarians", should not be underestimated.

Lately it has made Syrian refugees – some 7000 have arrived in Bulgaria – its main cause. And the besieged government has worked to Ataka's advantage.

Ataka managed to push a ban on land sale to foreign citizens, despite EU regulations. It also drove the decision to construct a fence to keep Syrians out along part of the border with Turkey. Meanwhile other parties – be they from the right or the left – are not politically squeamish about teaming up with Ataka.

So the bets are on for the party to play a much bigger role than predicted in the May elections.

Not so happy about the EU either

But if Bulgarians are unhappy with their domestic political lot (just 26 percent trust the government), it does not make them rosy-eyed about the EU.

Less than a third of them (32 percent) feel the seven years of EU membership has brought about positive change, 17 percent feel it has been negative while 51 percent do not believe it has resulted in significant change.

On a personal level the results are starker still. Only 15 percent feel that EU membership has brought positive benefits for them. Seventy three percent say it has not.

Bulgarian voters will elect 17 MEPs to the 751-strong European Parliament on 25 May.

The article originally referred to Bulgaria as the EU's new member state. It is not; Croatia is.

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