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The Making-of: Bulgaria’s Populist Revolt

Looking at the political situations in various countries around the globe, one can get a feeling that once more a specific trend is on the rise. Namely, populism. Following the trend-setters in form of Hungary, Poland and the USA, there is a growing fear that Bulgaria might be the next populist trend-victim. Have a look of how the fear of “the Other”, combined with Bulgaria’s own fake news and alternative facts created populism’s perfect breeding ground.

Donald trump, Brexit, the electoral success of several right wing populist parties and the autocratic tendencies of quite a few governments – 2016 was a hard year for a liberal public. However, there were always voices to predict those events. Therefore, let me be part of the prophets and anticipate the headlines for the Bulgarian elections in 2017: “A populist/nationalist/xenophobic party with a surprising result in the Bulgarian parliamentary elections.”

With this article, however, I will go beyond the headlines and attempt to analyze the processes, try to map “the making-of Bulgaria’s populist revolt.” I believe that the example of a relatively small country, which rarely makes it on the news, would help to illustrate how populism is not made overnight. Instead, this is a gradual process, combining a favorable breeding ground with political blunders and opportunism.

How it all Began – the Populist Breeding Ground

Surprisingly, up to this moment Bulgaria has not seen an electoral success of a truly populist/xenophobic party of the same magnitude as in Hungary, Poland or Greece, for example. I say surprisingly, because from a theoretical perspective, the Bulgarians have all the reasons for anti-systematic or populist vote. Namely, the country is often described as “the poorest and most corrupt” in the European Union. Nevertheless, an overtly radical populist party has not been able to break the mold of the traditional top 3 parties (GERB – mainstream right, BSP – mainstream left, DPS – the party of the Turkish minority).

As it seems, the traditional factors were not able to generate sufficient outrage to catapult populism into electoral success. A potential explanation for this is that the biggest party for the past 10 years, GERB, has certain populist characteristics. On the one hand, its “charismatic leader” is portrayed as “a man of the people,” who enjoys media comfort and often yields to the public opinion on controversial issues in the very last moment as a “messiah.” On the other, the party certainly reached electoral success thanks to their opposition to the previous mainstream parties, as an attempt to change the political landscape.

Using the Good-ol’ trick or the Fear of “the Other”

What the economic situation could not achieve for years, the fears over the cultural threat from the refugee crisis did in 2015 and 2016. The radical populist parties (Patriotic Front) shifted the focus of their attacks, but remained loyal to the traditional tool of such parties: the process of Othering, whereby “an outsider” is blamed and targeted. The refugee crisis provided them with the perfect opportunity: the traditional enemy – the Turkish or the gypsy minorities in the country, was sidelined for the new one, the “hordes of illegal immigrants,” many of whom “potentially terrorists.” It was not the deplorable economic situation or the corruption, which carried the populists to the top, it was the perceived cultural and security threat. This new focus matched miraculously well with the political instability and terrorist attacks in Europe, which additionally fueled those feelings.

The Power of the mass Media: Fake News and Alternative Facts

Meanwhile, obsessed with ratings and sensationalism, tabloids and TV stations began over-reporting and exaggerating the real threat for the country. Reports show that many of their numbers were off, many of their conclusions as well. But this did not stop them from inviting in their studios all types of radicals and conspiracists, drawing apocalyptic scenarios about the plan to “liquidate Christian Europe.” Even one of the national television channels turned a guy who illegally arrested and humiliated refugees into a star by giving him a platform in their reality show, where he could voice his “patriotic views.” Besides the new enemy, throughout the last two years, the media did not stop to disproportionately cover and blow up the public opinion on stories related to the old enemies.

Invention of the “Reversed Racism”

In January, the box of Pandora was opened when in one line of the Ministry of Education’s new school programs the historically accurate term “Turkish vladichestvo (domination)” was used instead of the emotionally charged “Turkish slavery.” The populists/nationalists saw this as a “politically correct” attempt to rewrite the Bulgarian history, and the media covered them for days. Regardless of the fact that the Bulgarian Science Institute came up with a statement defending the former term as the one depicting the historical reality. Similarly, in October 2016, the public opinion, led by the media and the populist parties, revolted against 600 scholarships for students of the gypsy minority. The reason: it was seen as “reversed racism” and unfair. Needless to say, these over-reported stories galvanized even further the frightened society with its dormant racism.

Next Step: The Apocalypse-is-here Approach

As any other major populist victory, the Bulgarian one could not have happened without “the help” from the mainstream political leaders and parties. Firstly, the prime minister and leader of the biggest party, Boyko Borisov, in 2016 dramatically changed his tone. He became very apocalyptic in his statements about the geopolitical situation in the world, often speaking about the “extremely insecure times that we live in” and “the thousands of refugees which Turkey could release in Bulgaria any minute.”

Secondly, forced by the fragmented parliament, Borisov had to enter into a coalition with the populist party (the Patriotic Front) in order to form a government. In hindsight, the price of avoiding political instability might have been too high: it meant the normalization of the populist/nationalist rhetoric, turning it into “the talk from and of the power.” After all, thanks to the pressure from the Patriotic Front, the government passed a burqa ban, making Bulgaria the fourth country in Europe to do so. By this time, the National Front and the smaller nationalist party Ataka had already made significant gains, reaching fourth/fifth place in the elections, with significant potential.

Being too-cool-for… Elections

The third and probably the biggest mistake came with the presidential elections in November 2016. On one hand, the prime minister tried to downplay the importance of the election, withholding his party’s nomination until one month before the elections and claiming that there are more important issues to deal with (e.g. migrant crisis). When they finally nominated their candidate, Tsetska Tsacheva, even their core supporters were not impressed: the nominee was one of the most unpopular choices, one who surely could not attract peripheral votes. Furthermore, Tsacheva refused to participate in debates with the other party’s candidates, leaving the already-normalized apocalyptic and populist voices to dominate the discourse.

The Plot Twist and the Political Crisis

At the same time, in an unexpected plot twist rarely seen even in Hollywood, the prime minister decided to lock up the fate of his government into the election’s outcome: if his candidate loses the elections, he would resign. It was an unexplainable gamble: tying up the cabinet’s future with the results of a totally unrelated and secondary elections (the president in Bulgaria has a mainly ceremonial and representative role). If the referenda in Britain and Italy have taught us something, it is that never ever should you turn an unrelated election/referendum into a vote “for” and “against” the government.


The new Bulgarian President – Rumen Radew (Source: Wikimedia).

The inexorable political logic did not spare the Bulgarian prime minister. The presidential elections indeed became a way to channel the protest vote against the government. The candidate of the other mainstream party (BSP), Rumen Radew, won the election by a lot, while the radical populist candidate came in on the third place with more than half a million votes (around 15%). In other words, the radical populist party more than doubled its electoral support when compared to the general elections two years earlier (573k vs. 239k votes). However, the loss of the ruling party’s candidate meant the resignation of the Prime Minister Borisov. This way, maybe unnecessary, maybe for the wrong reasons, he plunged the country into a political crisis and instability vacuum at the moment when the radical populist parties are riding the wave of the popular discontent and fear.

The Migrants’ Revolt and the Populists’ Protest

THe Harmanli camp (Source: Flickr – UNHCR / D. Kashavelov).

The political vacuum gave its first results when a few weeks after the election there was a revolt in the refugee centre in the Bulgarian city of Harmanli. The refugees had been locked inside the centre due to fears of contagious diseases, but neither did the medical personnel enter the facility for three days, nor were the people inside given a proper explanation. The result: a migrant revolt which ended up with several people injured: both police officers and migrants beaten up by the police.

Of course, the biggest winner of the events was the radical populist party, which quickly organised protests outside of the refugee centre and occupied the media spotlight for days. Whether the prime minister’s resignation was a political blunder or not, the history will tell us later on, but the truth is that the radical populist parties have never been in a better position to “break the mould” than in the upcoming elections in 2017.

The Final Prophecy

As the Bulgarian case clearly shows us, the rise of populism is not a one-day phenomenon or a surprise, but an explosive combination of a fertile breeding ground, sequences of bad political moves and unscrupulous political opportunism. We remain to see whether 2017 will provide the last spark to ignite the populist powder keg.

So when you see the headlines for the Bulgarian parliamentary elections, don’t act surprised. I warned you!