Bulgaria: regime in crisis – workers’ alternative needed!

The 11 July Bulgarian parliamentary elections dislodged the right-wing GERB (“Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria”) party from power. Deep divisions in the ruling class now threaten to transform a crisis of the regime into one of the whole political system.

For over a decade, GERB (which was until recently backed by imperialist powers in Washington and Berlin), maintained mafia rule for the Bulgarian oligarchs. Despite their being ousted, the July elections – for the second time in a four-month period – failed to produce a stable coalition government capable of running the country.

In both the July elections, and the previous contest on 4 April, the popular vote was fragmented. The leading parties either secured too few seats to govern on their own (while lacking the support of enough of the others) or were unwilling to work together, preventing the formation of a parliamentary majority coalition with which to vote in a cabinet.

This has seen the parties stuck passing the leadership of the country around in a game of political hot potato, which at the time of writing has yet to come to any resolution.

Deadlock in April

The April snap elections saw GERB – a party led by the boorish, former high-profile bodyguard Boyko Borisov – just barely cling to the lead with a minority (26.18 percent) of the vote, having run in coalition with SDS, the “Union of Democratic Forces”.

The GERB administration, which ruled since 2009, has become widely unpopular following recent and ongoing corruption scandals.

Trifonov Image Tnvsjk2013The so called anti-establishment party ITN presents no road forward for the working class / Image: Tnvsjk2013

These triggered a wave of major protests last summer, in which tens of thousands of Bulgarians hit the streets for months, calling for the resignation of Borisov’s regime, along with the chief prosecutor. Later, demands were raised for constitutional amendments for judicial reform.

The movement was one of the largest in years and drew in a broad base from layers of society that were most impoverished by the economic and political chaos under GERB’s rule. However, its leading elements did not move beyond anti-corruption slogans aimed at the ruling party to class-based demands and methods.

A number of new liberal parties emerged from the protests that went on to run in the elections on “Borisov out” platforms, promising to make Bulgaria a respectable bourgeois-democratic EU state.

They promised to boot out GERB and root out the establishment mobsters, with judicial and electoral reform to bolster democracy and enshrine the rule of law.

These parties of course refused to support GERB’s proposed cabinet after it won the April election but failed to secure a majority.

The mandate to propose a government was then passed around: first from GERB to the close second anti-establishment party Ima Takuv Narod (“There is such a people”, ITN), which secured 17.66 percent of the vote.

ITN is a politically confused but fundamentally right-wing project led by Slavi Trifonov: a popular TV host and performer. In the past few decades, he has become known by many as “the guy who sings for the mobsters at their parties”.

Typically of the idiotic right-wingers who attend such mob parties, Trifonov espouses Milton Freidman as his favourite economic theorist; and the Thatcher and Reagan regimes as his chosen model of governance, while calling ITN anti-elite and “commanded by morality and law”.

In April, Trifonov was unwilling to form a government when handed the mandate, and even together with the other anti-establishment parties did not make up enough seats to do so. He refused to work, not only with GERB, but also with the other main establishment parties.

These include the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP, which came third place in the April elections with 15.01 percent of the vote); and Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), the party representing the Turkish minority in Bulgaria, which came fourth with 10.51 percent.

This deliberate ploy allowed ITN to limit GERB’s room for manoeuvre, as rather than fighting a battle on one front, GERB was forced to fend off attacks from all sides by ITN and other anti-establishment parties, like a wounded lion surrounded by hyenas.

From Trifonov, the mandate to propose a cabinet was finally passed to the BSP, which had served as the official opposition to GERB in parliament prior to April.

Despite the name (the party descends from the former Communist Party), the BSP has a history of enacting reactionary, anti-working class and pro-business policies. In 2007, a BSP-led coalition government crushed a teachers’ strike: one of Bulgaria’s largest national strikes in decades.

It also introduced a marketised model of education that led to hundreds of school closures and drop-outs. It has formed coalitions with far-right nationalists; and introduced the crippling 10 percent flat tax rate in 2008.

The party’s current leadership under Korneliya Ninova is conservative socially as well as economically. It is ‘left' only in relation to the extreme right-wing policies of GERB and ITN.

This party is increasingly discredited in Bulgaria, as evidenced by being handed its worst-ever election result in July. The BSP had no willing coalition partners and so rejected the mandate to propose a government.

The interim government, Borisov and imperialist meddling

As a result of the paralysis in April, President Rumen Radev appointed an interim technocratic government with the purpose of running the July elections.

This is not an uncommon practice in Bulgaria in times of instability. Such caretaker governments have been put in place four times in the last three decades. This tactic serves to defuse mass unrest when the established political parties are ridden with corruption, leading to mass rejection of the political status quo.

The interim government facilitates the removal of the rejected parties, allowing a team of professional technocrats to keep order until a new election takes place.

Between the April and July elections this year, these interim “experts'' also dug up corruption charges against the Borisov administration, including the channelling of billions of dollars of public funds to cronies.

Borisov dismissed these accusations and maintained some support from his voting base by claiming they are trumped up charges, coming exclusively from the upper-middle-class urbanites who want to force him out.

It is clear that Borisov’s unpopularity means he is regarded as a spent force and a liability by his former backers. Moves to expel him and his party were given a further impetus in May, when the US placed sanctions on a Bulgarian official and two other oligarchs with suspected ties to him, plus 64 business entities.

Such sanctions, carried out under the Magnitsky Act, were unprecedented. They were levelled without a word of protest from representatives of the EU, of which Bulgaria is a member state.

In this same interim period, between the April and July elections, representatives of American imperialism made two other impactful moves in Bulgaria.

First, the US Ambassador in Sofia went around meeting with opposition party representatives, further and crudely publicising Washington’s separation from former ally Borisov.

Second, also in May, US troops raided a Bulgarian sunflower oil factory, holding workers at gunpoint during a NATO training exercise – allegedly by mistake!

Also, escalating tensions between NATO forces and Russia in the Black Sea created a threatening backdrop.

These incidents create resentment among the Bulgarian masses, which distrust US interference and especially military coercion. The US uses Bulgaria as a site for four NATO bases and some 2,500 troops, through which it competes for military supremacy with Russia.

Despite angering the population, a heavy Western influence has dominated the politics of all governments post-1990, and especially since Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004.

Lowest-ever election turnout

Vote distribution above the 4 percent threshold to enter Parliament in April 4 and July 11 elections Image PoliticoVote distribution (above the 4 percent threshold to enter Parliament) in April 4 and July 11 elections / Image: Politico

With many factors contributing to Borisov’s unpopularity, as well as general disillusionment toward the electoral process, in addition to the first-ever use of electronic voting (a measure the interim government put in place to ward against problems such as vote-buying), the 11 July elections saw the lowest turnout on record at 42.2 percent, down from 50.86 percent in April.

The do-over saw parties attain a similar or only marginally shifted weight of votes compared to April, resulting once again in a lack of any majority coalition, meaning the deadlock continued and no government was formed.

While this time Trifonov’s ITN attained a small lead in the number of votes over GERB (24.08 percent compared to 23.51 percent; with the BSP dropping to 13.39 percent), it is unclear whether they will be able to form a government. Their potential coalition partners still do not make up a majority of parliament.

On 12 July, before the vote-count was finalised, Trifonov made a Facebook post presenting his proposed government, composed of experts who will have priorities” (one of which is to privatise the last state-owned bank), alongside former establishment party politicians, without consulting any other parties. He then swiftly withdrew the proposal after general backlash.

One of ITN’s potential coalition partners, also formed in the protest movement of last summer, is “Stand Up, Mafia Out” (ISMV), led by Maya Manolova, a former member of parliament under the BSP. This is the coalition that most clearly presents itself as standing up for the oppressed masses.

However its leader has suspected ties to mobsters from her hometown, and was previously appointed national ombudsman by Borisov himself.

Also in the anti-establishment camp in parliament, and the second candidate for working with ITN, is Democratic Bulgaria (DB): a coalition of the liberal parties consisting of urban elites who believe that banging on about ‘green’ policies, while appealing to entrepreneurs and business interests, will solve all of Bulgaria’s problems.

These two formations took 5.1 percent and 13.39 percent of the vote respectively, in July.

Examining the platforms of these so-called protest parties reveals that their actual politics are much like those of the establishment parties. They maintain the same economic policies of cuts and austerity as the GERB regime, and likewise the pro-business, pro-capitalist regimes prior to GERB.

In fact, none of the parties seem to have the vaguest understanding of what actually brought Bulgaria to its current position as the EU member state with lowest wageslowest GDP/capita, and with the second-highest national debt, after Hungary.

The culprit is capitalism itself, and its particularly ravaging process of restoration throughout Bulgaria and surrounding so-called ex-communist countries.

This period of transition or restoration of capitalism, following the collapse of the undemocratic Stalinist caricature of communism that prevailed until 1990 in Bulgaria, has been characterised by both legal and illegal transfering of public resources to private hands.

This includes those of the pro-capitalist elements from the former Stalinist bureaucracy, who survived the gang wars in the 1990s to become part of today’s oligarchy within the Bulgarian ruling capitalist class.

Herein lies the root of the endemic corruption of the Bulgariancapitalist class. In the 1990s, shock market reforms led to hyperinflation, shortages of goods, idle industry, and mass layoffs, with an attendant drastic fall in wages and loss of social security.

The healthcare system was subjected to market reforms and commercialised, which produced disastrous results during the pandemic, which has seen Bulgaria face one of the highest mortality rates in the world according to population size.

Pensions were also privatised. And similarly to other former Stalinist countries in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria has been used as a source of cheap skilled and unskilled labour by Western European capitalism.

Recent decades have seen a trend of labour code counter-reforms, trampling wages and workers’ rights, which along with low taxes seek to attract foreign investment.

This worked after Bulgaria joined the EU, but foreign investment plummeted from 28 percent to 2 percent of the national GDP from 2008 to 2018, because investors were turned off by corruption indices and have found cheaper labour elsewhere on the international market.

This policy of privatisations, and gutting the state-controlled sectors of the economy and public services, has been carried out continually by pro-EU and NATO parties elected since Bulgaria was absorbed into these organisations.

When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, despite its then-rampant corruption problems, along with Romania (which was in a similar situation), the idea was that these new, weaker capitalist member states (conveniently located on the eastern edge of Europe) would be put on special monitoring and planning measures to combat corruption.

In fact, corruption has continued apace in Bulgaria, with billions of euros of EU funding ending up straight in the pockets of the ruling class. Corruption has effectively been given a free pass by the imperialist powers, until it is intermittently brought up in times of mass protest.

At this point, finger-pointing at individual politicians, followed by superficial regime changes, buy class peace but ultimately change nothing.

Take for example former-King-turned-Prime-Minister, Simeon II Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and his centrist National Movement for Stability and Progress (NDSV). This new party, appearing on the brink of mass rejection of the parties implicated in the economic chaos of the 1990s, swept the elections in 2001 on an anti-corruption platform, with the slogan “new morality in politics.”

Hailed as a man of “European values”, the former king’s government of graduates of US and UK academic and financial institutions (like Wall Street and the World Bank) paved the way for what we see playing out today: the false idea that moralising experts and technocrats can solve the country’s problems, which in reality are caused by the same capitalist system they defend.

After four years of brutal austerity, the king’s popularity ran out. Bulgarians saw he was just like the rest: corrupt, and unable to steer Bulgaria onto an economic path that benefited anyone but the rich. This is the same process playing out now, with a jester (Trifonov) instead of a king attempting to position himself as a figurehead for capitalism.

At the time of writing, parliament remains at an impasse, with no easy means for forming a stable government. The next months will likely involve ongoing coalition talks and possibly the formation of a very unstable minority government based on Trifonov’s ITN.

In such a scenario, ITN would work with others, policy by policy, until another snap election is forced by public pressure at the inevitable disorganisation and roadblocks that would plague such a fragile arrangement. Alternatively, a new election might be provoked by a return of last summer’s protest wave.

In any case, there could be another repeat election in the time-frame of just a few months.

Of course, the crisis of Bulgarian politics runs deeper than simply getting a majority of elected figures to vote decisively. The challenge facing any future government, whenever and however it forms, is also larger than making up for GERB’s mismanagement and crimes.

This electoral crisis is one symptom among many, resulting from the serious contradictions building up in Bulgarian society and around the world, as the economic system itself, capitalism, falls into deep crisis.

Any government dependent on the capitalist class will fail to confront, and rather collide head-on, with the pressing problems affecting society.

These include the health crisis and economic havoc wrought by the pandemic, and the estimated 100,000 jobs that will be lost when the state-owned Mini-Maritza Iztok complex (the largest Bulgarian coal mine) and four thermal power plants it fuels, close in September.

This complex is responsible for 40-60 percent of the country’s consumed electricity, and yet none of the parties in parliament adequately addressed its closure in their platforms.

Alternative needed

As Marxists, we know that the state itself is a tool (or weapon, as needed) that serves the capitalist class in maintaining its grip on power: either through suppressing workers domestically, or those of other nations, in the name of expanding profit.

The state’s elected representatives in parliament do the legislating work necessary for business to proceed smoothly under capitalism and imperialism globally. They obey the dictates of business to keep conditions favourable for the capitalist class to extract profit.

The vast sums pocketed by the oligarchs and passed around organised crime networks are extracted from the collective labour undertaken by the working masses, who are squeezed for every drop of profit through attacks on wages and cuts to social services.

Electoral politics is just a shell for the continuance of capitalism, meaning that any “protest” party without a class analysis, roots in the working class, and principled socialist programme will inevitably subordinate their supporters’ demands to the interests of the ruling class.

Unless they are prepared, by revolutionary means, to overthrow the capitalist system, which is based on corruption, inequality and exploitation, their ‘solutions’ will ultimately only support the status quo.

The anti-corruption focus and rhetoric of politicians in these campaigns has gone hand-in-hand with imperialist interests manoeuvering to replace Borisov (previously their lever of political influence in Bulgaria), now that he has become unpopular.

The charge of corruption allows the competing sections of the ruling class to accuse one another of crimes of which they are all guilty. In so doing, they deflect blame from the rotten economic system, from which they all benefit, and put forward a government that will deliver more austerity and anti-worker policies in line with the interests of the imperialists and national oligarchy.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated and exposed the crisis of the capitalist system, is revealing the real class nature of society, in Bulgaria as in the rest of the world.

The parties that are agitating on an ‘anti-corruption’ ticket, exploiting mass anger against the system to propel themselves into office, will inevitably expose their inability to resolve the pressing needs of the workers. Namely, decent jobs with decent wages, social security, free and universal healthcare, free education, housing, and all the fundamental necessities that cannot be fulfilled by capitalism.

The workers and youth in Bulgaria are learning from experience that they cannot rely on this or that faction of the capitalist class. The only way to free society from corruption, and to attain foundations for genuine democracy – let alone meaningful reform, is to take both economic and political power into the hands of the working class.

The working and oppressed layers of Bulgaria need a mass party based independently on their own forces, and an organised labour movement, ready to fight militantly for workers’ interests against those of capital, with a bold socialist programme.