Snap election unlikely to ease growing despair in Bulgaria

Prime minister Boiko Borisov’s Gerb party expected to win ballot but not overall majority

A supporter of Bulgaria’s centre-right Gerb party holds a poster of party leader Boiko Borisov during an election rally in the city of Veliko Tarnovo yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Stoyan Nenov

A supporter of Bulgaria’s centre-right Gerb party holds a poster of party leader Boiko Borisov during an election rally in the city of Veliko Tarnovo yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Stoyan Nenov

Sat, May 11, 2013, 01:00

Bulgarians vote in a snap election tomorrow, after mass protests against the poverty and corruption that have driven several people to set themselves on fire in acts of despair.

The centre-right government of prime minister Boiko Borisov resigned in February as demonstrations against soaring electricity bills spiralled into rallies against the entire political establishment and sparked clashes between protesters and riot police.

But Bulgaria’s mainstream opposition has failed to capitalise on discontent with Borisov’s Gerb party and on a wiretapping scandal dogging one of its leading members, aiding the far-right Ataka group as it aims to become the third-largest force in parliament.

Gerb is expected to win the ballot without claiming an overall majority, potentially giving Ataka the role of kingmaker and fuelling more protests by people who feel betrayed by an intertwined political and business elite they see as incompetent and utterly venal.

“The politicians did not listen to the voice of the people and we have no intention of retreating. We will make a protest march in Sofia on Sunday and I can tell you this is just the beginning,” said one protest leader, Yanaki Ganchev. Angel Slavchev, head of a small opposition party, said: “I am afraid we will not just see protests, we will see barricades. People feel betrayed, there is an enormous crisis of trust.”

The average monthly wage in the EU’s poorest country is just €400, and the standard pension is just €140; unemployment is at an eight-year high and almost 40 per cent of Bulgarians under the age of 30 do not have a job.

That is driving emigration, and about 1.5 million people have left Bulgaria since the fall of communism in 1989. The population has shrunk to 7.3 million, reducing the pool of taxpayers and putting more strain on a struggling benefits system. Gerb says it will keep a tight leash on public spending, and warns of disaster if the main Socialist opposition party takes power and fulfils promises to cut taxes.

“I’m too afraid that people will come [to power] in the next year, year and a half, to meet public expectations of higher incomes and then the failure of the country is guaranteed,” said Mr Borisov, a burly former bodyguard who entered office on a pledge to tackle rampant corruption. But now his own former interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov is accused of illegally wiretapping top businessmen and politicians, including fellow members of the cabinet.

Mr Tsvetanov denies the allegations, and cannot be charged at the moment because his candidacy for parliament grants him immunity from prosecution.

Organised crime groups are believed to have major influence in Bulgaria, and the EU has kept the country’s justice system under special monitoring and refused to let it join the passport-free Schengen zone because of concerns about graft. Disillusionment with the major parties has prompted some to shift allegiance to Ataka, which promises to crush corruption, raise taxes on the wealthy and nationalise some major foreign-owned firms.

It is expected to secure about 5 per cent of support, less than in the last election in 2009 but up sharply from the 1.9 per cent it enjoyed in opinion polls earlier in the year.

Others have expressed their dismay in more drastic ways: since February, seven people have set themselves on fire, some having clearly expressed their despair at their own poverty and the state of their country.

Only one of the seven. Dimitar Dimitrov, survived. “I wanted to rebel, to rise against the misery,” Mr Dimitrov said after his release from hospital. He said he was driven to set himself alight by “the annihilation of our nation by all the governments of the past 23 years, not to mention the previous 45 years of communist rule”.

“To be honest, I can’t stand any party,” he added.

“They are all the same and similarly involved with the oligarchy and corruption.”