Bulgarians Vote for Food
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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DISCLAIMER
The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author

Bulgaria has only one political voice: the voice of the aspiration to prosperity. The lure of EU membership coupled with the need to comply with IMF and World Bank conditions served to homogenize party platforms across the spectrum. A national consensus regarding free markets, protection of property rights, civil society, EU and NATO membership, institution building, and cautious macroeconomic policy renders the political parties virtually indistinguishable.

Bulgaria experienced one of the most difficult periods of transition among the post-communist countries. Poverty reached a nadir in the years 1993-1998 with food rationing and shortages of basic subsistence goods. The government of the barely reformed Communists ("Bulgarian Socialist Party"), headed by Jan Videnov, wrought total devastation on Bulgaria. Hyperinflation, rising unemployment, a dysfunctional financial sector, cronyism, organized crime, an unrestructured and crumbling industrial sector brought it down in the 1997 elections, won by the UDF (United Democratic Forces) coalition.

The UDF is led by the SDS (Union of Democratic Forces) and incorporates most of the conservative wing of Bulgarian politics: the Democratic Party (DP), a few agrarian splinters and the BSDP (Bulgarian Social Democratic Party). It is led by the energetic Ivan Kostov. His appeal rested with his (relatively) clean record - but mainly with his experience in economic management. Chairman of the Economic Commission and finance minister in two post transition governments, he was perceived to be the right man for the job of reviving Bulgaria's moribund economic fortunes. The UDF espouses a form of free marketry tampered by (rather imperceptible) tinges of "social responsibility". It is ardently pro-EU, pro-privatization and, in short, pro IMF. The introduction of a currency board was a master stroke which served to stabilize the lev and maintain macro-economic and monetary stability. Anti-corruption campaigns enhanced the government's modernizing image. It all had little effect on the quotidian life of the average Bulgarian and disaffection and disillusionment are rampant. But a palpable strengthening of Bulgaria's international posture (visa free travel to the EU, accession talks) ameliorated the national mood of disappointment for a while. Recently, though, a series of corruption and wiretapping scandals and criminal shootouts have tarnished the UDF's image. The war in Macedonia has the potential to scare away foreign investors and embroil Bulgaria in a third Balkan War. Anxiety is high.

On the right, a new and surprising force has emerged.

Simeon Borisov Koburgotski, also known as King Simeon II has lived in exile, in Spain for over 50 years. But in 1996, he visited his homeland. He provoked an hitherto unrequited wave of messianic economic and social expectations. In April 2001, Mr. Koburgotski established the "National Movement". Apart from a few unrealistic ad populist promises, its economic platform is virtually indistinguishable from the UDF's and much vaguer at that:

"...Three essential goals: first, immediate and qualitative change in the standards of living, by turning the economy into a working market economy in accordance with the European Union criteria for membership, as well as by an increase of the flow of global capital. I am ready to propose a system of economic measures and partnerships which, within 800 days and based on the well known Bulgarian work ethic and entrepreneurial skills, will change your life. Second, by abandoning the political partisanship and unifying the Bulgarian nation along historical ideals and values that have preserved its glory for all its 1300-year history. Third, by introducing new rules and institutions to eliminate corruption, which is the major enemy of Bulgaria, causing poverty and repelling vital foreign investments."

The Bulgarian left provides for a very disheartening political landscape.

The Bulgarian Socialist Party is now the nucleus of an emerging 16-member opposition, the New Left Alliance. The Alliance is made up of parties which support old socialism, labour orientated policies, and the maintenance of a social safety net. This is very akin to other European left and social democratic parties. the parties of the Alliance are intent on merging into a single entity after the elections, though the diversity of the group - nationalists, communists, socialists, agrarians, feminists and Roma - renders this nigh impossible. The Turkish minority is Bulgaria (one tenth of the population) spawned the other opposition grouping, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and has been excluded from the Alliance. The Alliance's leader, Georgi Parvanov, is making distinctly pro-Western and anti-"archaic Communism" noises. This did not prevent a power sharing pre-election agreement with the unreformed Communist party. Many regard these astonishing twists and turns as sheer opportunism. Other simply ridicule these improbable bedmates. Yet, they may still surprise. They derive hope and courage from the Romanian precedent, where the socialists surged ahead and won the elections. To adopt Romania as a model one truly needs to be desperate, retort many Bulgarians.