The October 2006 presidential election has revived the debate on the meaning and significance of populism in Bulgarian political life, with Volen Siderov and his party, Ataka, as the main catalysts.
In terms of his background, the 50-year-old journalist is a somewhat unlikely "instrument" for the strengthening of Bulgarian rightwing populism. Between 1990 and 1992 Siderov served as the editor-in-chief of Bulgaria's first independent newspaper Demokratsiya, of moderate centre-right political persuasion. After that he acted as deputy editor-in-chief of the more conservative tabloid, Monitor. Yet he was forced to resign from both jobs and subsequently chose to join a radical rightwing talk show on the SKAT cable TV station.
Siderov's October 2006 presidential campaign was based on a quintessentially populist anti-corruption, nationalist platform, with constant references to national interests, state sovereignty, and the usual blend of internal and external threats to such values.
Siderov's concrete proposals were for the most part vague, and in some instances downright unrealistic. For instance, he said repeatedly that he wanted to outlaw the predominantly Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or DPS, and abolish all radio and TV programming in Turkish by Bulgaria-based broadcasters. He also pledged to renege on Bulgaria's agreements with the European Union with respect to the early closure of the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant, and to find ways of writing off low-income Bulgarians' debts.
It is not only a question of Siderov clearly overestimating the powers of the Bulgarian head of state,according to the 1991 constitution. The Bulgarian president has no more than three major prerogatives: he is the commander-in-chief of the military forces; he can send back laws to parliament once for reconsideration (called the "delaying veto"); and, finally, he can play a significant role in government formation. In other words, there is no way a Bulgarian president (at least one accepting the validity of the constitution) can renegotiate an international agreement, change the legal status of political parties or alter the rules of public service broadcasting.
But clearly, also on a political level, Siderov's radical vision clashes with realities, some of which he has vowed to respect. While he says he does want to take Bulgaria into the EU in January 2007, numerous obligations toward the EU would simply preclude the realization of several of the proposals he advocated during his admittedly effective campaign.
Another grim reality is that of Siderov's political party, Ataka. Like any political formation created around an authoritarian and charismatic personality, Ataka consistently suffers from its dependence on the party leader for legitimacy and voter support. In 2005 Siderov's anti-establishment message managed to rally a group of confidants and associates who shared his sweeping criticism of today's Bulgaria. But one year later the party's caucus still lacks concrete proposals of how to deal with Bulgarian realities.
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The prospect of fighting another successful political campaign alongside its leader, however, was a challenge that made parts of the Ataka organisation pull themselves together once again. Many commentators have testified to the unusually effective campaign Siderov was able to fight during the summer and early atumn, visiting a great number of locations "off the beaten track" of previous presidential campaigns. This approach of paying most attention to small and medium-sized cities, and to areas where discontent is known to be high, was rewarded by electoral support exceeding that of Ataka in June 2005.
Nobody disputes that Siderov's campaign tapped into a great deal of discontent that was ripe for political exploitation. The two major achievements of recent years, the pending EU membership and the presently high economic growth rate, tend to remain abstract to most Bulgarian citizens, who will not benefit for years to come. Statistics show that Bulgarians will be the poorest citizens of the 27-member EU, when the country joins on 1 January 2007. Furthermore, corruption continues to be rampant among decisionmakers and in public institutions, and even the judiciary is seriously affected. A large proportion of the population are pensioners, and they know they cannot expect to regain the standard of living they experienced during Communism.
Equally understandably, the Bulgarian presidential election is a natural outlet for a protest vote. The choice people make in a first round of elections can be "corrected" in the runoff by a vote that blocks the prospects for a flagrantly unsuitable candidate.
This is analogous to the EU skepticism conveniently voiced in elections to the European Parliament in the UK, Denmark and Sweden, by voters who would have thought twice about whether to give the same candidates the national legislature, as they realised that the consequences may come back to haunt them.
Another aspect of mainstream European populism that in recent years has been visible in Austria, France, Belgium and Denmark, is aggressive nationalism. There are in fact striking similarities between the slogans and rhetorical figures used by Siderov and those applied by "regular" European xenophobic parties. The difference lies in the fact that that Ataka's main source of concern is not non-European immigrants but the country's own minorities, above all the Turks and the Roma.
This gives Bulgarian political populism, and Siderov's anti-minority rhetoric in particular, a distinctively Balkan (and a lot more sinister) flavour. The high unemployment and crime rates in the Roma community have been recurrent themes in virtually all Bulgarian election campaigns, whereas attacks on ethnic Turks typically belong to the subtler subtexts of the campaigns. Siderov and Ataka are changing this pattern, as they are moving anti-minority rhetoric centre stage.
A frequent pretext for Siderov's aggressive anti-Turkish sentiments is that the DPS has acted as a power broker to most Bulgarian governments after the fall of Communism. Based on this observation, Siderov and his supporters deduce that the DPS (albeit always the junior partner in such coalitions) is the primary source of corruption, abuse of power and a series of other "ills" in Bulgarian society.
So, while intimations of a similar kind have occurred in previous election campaigns, the novelty lies in Siderov's explicit and systematic use of the DPS and its electoral base as scapegoats and potential threats to the cohesiveness of the Bulgarian state and its (titular) "nation".
In this respect he cannot simply be regarded as yet another representative of populist politics, even of Balkan-style populism. Although his opinions lack coherence and clarity in terms of a set of proposals or programme, there is an ideological orientation and ambition in Ataka rhetoric. That ideological orientation makes Ataka a potential breeding ground for aggressive 19th Century nationalist views.
It is likely that things will get worse before they get better, both in terms of realities and rising fears of inter-ethnic conflict. In the mid- to long-term the implications of EU membership should render political populism less effective, by providing hopes for a better future and slowly improving living conditions. In the meantime, however, there is a genuine political battle to be fought for the hearts and minds of those Bulgarians who presently perceive the glass as half-empty rather than half-full.