Politics in Europe’s south-east corner rarely make it to the front pages, unless something of truly dramatic proportions happens. Think the Greek crisis, millions marching in Bucharest, violence in Kosovo, or thousands of Syrian refugees trekking across the EU’s border with Turkey. You are therefore forgiven if you missed the news of a new coalition government formed in Bulgaria. With a string of critical elections in western Europe, first the Netherlands, then France, now the UK and ultimately Germany, there is a plenty on one’s plate, in a day and age when the short attention span is the rule.
Yet what happens in Bulgaria has broader significance, at least in one respect. The incoming coalition is a partnership between the main centre-right force, GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) which is part of the European People’s Party (EPP), and a far-right bloc, United Patriots (UP). Le Pen has been dealt a blow in France but at the other end of Europe her bosom buddies are making gains.
The inclusion of the Patriots, who won per cent in the election, should not come as a surprise. The union of three parties, which exploits fears about refugees and asylum seekers, testifies to the strength of populism in Bulgarian politics. Yet populism is far from a novel phenomenon, let alone a challenge to the political system. In Bulgaria, it is the system. Since the 1990s model of the post-communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the centre-right Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) imploded in 2001, there have been a number of players who have risen to prominence by claiming they were the alternative to the deeply corrupt establishment.
First was the ex-king, Simeon Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha (prime minister, 2001-05), then his one-time bodyguard Boyko Borisov (GERB’s founder and leader), who have been at the nation’s helm, on and off, since 2009. BSP, the party that has been in government longer than anyone else since 1989, is similarly in a populist mode. Its politics blends nostalgia for the golden era before the fall of communism with rhetorical commitment to EU-style social democracy, more than a touch of cultural conservatism (LGBT rights do not go down well with the party’s electorate) and unrestrained fondness of Russia.
So the Patriots are in pretty much the same line of business as everyone else. Except that they do it in uglier ways. In the run-up to the vote on 27 March, for instance, UP blocked the main border crossing with Turkey and harassed Bulgarian Turks on the pretext of preventing ‘electoral tourism’ skewing the outcome of the vote.
Both GERB and BSP have a history of co-operating with the far right, including the ultranationalist Ataka party, which backed them in parliament at various times, and the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) and VMRO, the other two constituents of the UP. What is new now is the fact that informal support is upgraded into a formal coalition with all attendant benefits for the junior partner, including several ministerial portfolios and deputy ministerial seats. Of course, GERB’s Borisov would have preferred to stick to the old model, using Patriots’ votes on an ad hoc basis, but he had no alternative in forming a cabinet. In previous elections, Ataka competed against NFSB/VMRO but this time around the old rivals pooled their forces. Though they undershot at the polls, UP won enough votes to become the kingmaker.
We do not yet know how damaging the inclusion of the far right will be. For sure, what the UP leaders care about, first and foremost, is dipping into the state pot, not overseeing an all-out ideological crusade. But the fact that their nationalist, illiberal and xenophobic rhetoric is becoming mainstream and is taken uncritically by the main political players, the media and, alas, large swathes of the public does cause alarm.