Gordon Brown once claimed he had saved the world, and now Bulgaria also has its own superman as Prime Minister with the backing of a huge majority. However, there is some superhero confusion with one article claiming Boiko Borisov’s nickname to be batman rather than superman. Amid the euphoria perhaps something has been lost in translation.
The new PM is quite a character. Borisov is a tough former body guard with the Italian leathers, the chiselled face, the muscles and the shaven head to match. His voice is so deep that Cameron and Clegg would sound like Piglet if they gave a press conference next to him and Brown would seem like Pooh bear. Borisov resembles the moody former Bulgarian and Barcelona football star Hristo Stoijkov, and he is a no-nonsense macho man in the Terminator mould. If you were to guess his profession you might say ‘Mafia boss’, but paradoxically the key plank of his campaign has been to fight corruption tooth and nail.
The key results of the Bulgarian General Election are as follows according to the BBC:
- Citizens for European Development 39.7%
- Socialists 22%
- Movement for Rights & Freedoms 14.47%
- Ataka 9.4%
- Blue Coalitiion 6.7%
This needs some unpacking for those without Bulgarian blood. Citizens for European Development (also kown as Gerb - it makes sense in Bulgarian) are a Democratic party led by the charismatic Borisov and are centre right but committed to Europe as their name suggest. The socialist alliance are mainly formed of ex-communists and have lost power dramatically after gaining 33% in the last elections. They don’t really have anything new to offer and have been mired in corruption, the politics of self-interest and scandal. The Movement for Rights & Freedoms, also known as the Minority Party, mainly stand for one minority – the Turkish minority. They have a solid and loyal base but will never gain power because they fiercely represent one minority and antagonise everyone else. Ataka are a deeply racist and bigotted far right party who hate the Movement for Rights & Freedoms, and their presence in parliament is disruptive to say the least. They are rather like the BNP but without the suits and the toned down public facing language. The Blue coalition are another centre-right party and are likely to enter into a coalition with Gerb. Since the fall of Communism in Bulgaria democratic and progressive forces have often shot themselves in the foot by bickering and splintering, but now Gerb should be able to form a workable majority.
In the context of Bulgarian politics, the results are potentially very encouraging. I tend not to support centre right parties, particularly ones led by former body builders, but this case is different. Bulgaria has been a democracy for twenty years and has flirted with one term coalition governments ever since. The fragmentation of politics has caused constant friction and infighting, and no party has been decisive enough to gain a hold and tackle the country’s problems rather than their own political self-interest. This election has delivered a clear result and Gerb crucially have the votes to avoid forced alliances and pacts with the extreme parties. It is also very encouraging that the turn-out approached 60% when the last General Election fell below 50%. Perhaps Bulgarian people have regained a glimour of hope in their politicians despite their habitual pessimism.
Bulgaria is riddled with corruption to such an extent that whenever you see a grand house, a new hotel or a swish shop people will shake their heads and mutter ‘Mafia money’. Our political scandals about mortgages and duck houses are pathetic by comparison. There have been hundreds of assassinations over the last years of business leaders and investigative journalist in the streets of Sofia with very few key arrests. Apart from business, Bulgaria is also riddled with widespread corruption in political and state institutions. A number of people were standing for election in the hope to avoid prosecution, but happily they lost their seats. The New York Times reports that during the recent European elections up to 16% of votes were bought or cast under pressure, and vote-buying groups demanded a picture on voters’ mobile phones to verify the vote. Apparently there was even a government health warning on adverts for elections with the text ‘Buying and selling votes is a crime’!
Three years ago Bulgaria was delighted to enter the EU and I remember standing in a packed central square on New Years Eve cheering at fireworks and spilling champagne. However, the EU demanded Bulgaria meet its strict standards and in return Bulgaia has not received the expected money from the EU because of its corruption. According to the New York Times, Bulgaria has lost 430 million euros last year as punsihed from the EU and a further 300 million euros has been frozen. This is a huge amount for the poorest country in the EU. The result is a lose-lose situation for Bulgaria and is a further reason (as if another one was needed) why it is imperative to stamp out corruption sooner rather than later. So far entry into the European Union has only resulted in rising prices and impossible business guidelines for the majority of Bulgarians, but the electorate has shown that despite this it still realises the European Union is the route to progress.
Borisov has the appeal of a tough man of the streets and the strength of mandate to tackle the issue of corruption head on. In political terms he cannot be dismissed because he has proven himself as a defiant and impressive mayor of Sofia who has made visible improvements. Borisov is far from perfect and certainly lacks the niceties of a Tony Blair, but in the tough world of Bulgarian politics he could yet prove to be a Balkan Obama, albeit with a rough edge. Above all, if he does manage to tackle corruption he will have earnt his nickname of superman and batman rolled into one. There are many serious issues facing Bulgaria, none the least the Roma question (see my previous blog) but none of them can be properly addressed before large-scale corruption has been eradicated.