Patriotic games on the EU’s periphery: Eurosceptic parties and the March 2017 Bulgarian election

Dragomir Stoyanov

The 2005 Bulgarian parliamentary elections were interesting for three reasons: the spectacular decline of the meteor party led by former Bulgarian king Simeon Saxkoburggotski, the confirmation of the role of the DPS (the Movement for Rights and Freedoms – the political party representing Bulgarian Turks) as the ‘king-making power’, and the emergence of a new party on the far-right end of the political spectrum, Ataka. This was a party that many observers expected to disappear after one or two elections but it survived and succeeded in imposing its values on Bulgarian political discourse.

Ironically, 12 years later – when Bulgarian political discourse became dominated by nationalistic, xenophobic and racist ideas – the party, led by Volen Siderov is in crisis. This forced Ataka, in the run-up to the March 26th 2017 Bulgarian national elections, to enter into an alliance with other far-right parties like the NFSB (National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria) and VMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) in order to secure representation in the new parliament. The name of this coalition is the ‘United Patriots’ and it includes a number of other smaller fringe parties in addition to Ataka, NFSB and VMRO, namely: the Union of Patriotic Forces ‘Defense’, BG Patriot, and the Middle European Class (SEK). What unites this coalition beyond their desire to enter parliament, is their national populism and anti-establishment rhetoric, expressed in slogans such as “Bulgaria above all”, “It’s time for revenge” (VMRO) and “Let’s get our Bulgaria back” (Ataka). Table 1 shows the support for the three main parties comprising the coalition in national and European Parliament (EP) elections since 2009.

 

Table 1: Support for the main parties comprising the Bulgarian ‘Patriots’ coalition

  2009 National Elections MPs 2009 EP Elections MEPs 2013 National Elections MPs 2014 EP Elections MEPs 2014 National Elections MPs
Ataka 9.37% 21 11.97% 2 7.30% 23 2.96% 0 4.52% 11
VMRO 2.25%* 0 1.89% 0 10.66%* 1 7.28% 19
NFSB 3.70% 0 3.05% 0

*In coalition with other parties

 
The party with the longest political history dating back to the end of nineteenth century is VRMO which, in different periods, has functioned as a militant political organization. The party has been banned on a number of occasions and suffered severe persecution by the communist regime. After the fall of the communism in 1989 it was re-established and its current leader Karakachanov (formerly a member of the communist State Security Service) is one of the longest standing Bulgarian politicians. Although this party has always situated itself on the right the political spectrum, it was only in recent years that they adopted anti-establishment rhetoric combined with harsh xenophobic sentiments that often echo Ataka.

NFSB, like Ataka, originated from the TV station Skat, which, from being region-based, became a channel with national coverage based on its popular anti-establishment, xenophobic and nationalistic views on both domestic and world politics. The leader of the party, Valery Simeonov, is also the owner of the channel and some of his employees occupy key positions in the party’s structures.

Members and supporters of the ‘Patriots’ coalition are mainly people with low social status, angry with the political status quo, who often have a background in the armed forces of the communist regime, and who can be considered ‘losers of the transition’. They are often very nostalgic about the communist past and especially about the law and order that existed in this period. Still, there are differences among supporters of the different parties within the coalition. Supporters of Ataka are strongly pro-Russian, while supporters of VMRO and NFSB have more nuanced views on the role of Russia in Bulgarian politics.

National politics

One of the foci of the ‘Patriots’ coalition during the current election campaign is the so-called “demographic catastrophe” which is related to the “Gypsy question”. According to the ‘United Patriots’, Bulgarians will disappear as an ethnic community in the next 50-100 years. VMRO, NFSB and Ataka blame the Bulgarian political establishment that they say is responsible for the “genocide” of the Bulgarian people which has been taking place after the fall of communism. Pointing to the Roma population as the main threat, the “Patriots” propose different measures in their programme which aim to increase birth rates among Bulgarians (aid for families with three children) and discouraging them among Roma (ending child benefits for families with more than three children). There is even an idea in the NFSB and VMRO 2014 coalition programme for the isolation of the Roma minority in special camps where they can live according to their own values and customs and be made an object of interest for tourists to visit.

Another measure to solve the “demographic catastrophe” are policies to attract to Bulgaria members of the Bulgarian minorities traditionally inhabiting territories in neighboring countries such as Macedonia, Serbia, Romania and Moldova. The “Patriots” also support the creation of para-military groups which are supposed to provide order and security and protect citizens from petty criminality, traditionally attributed mainly to the Roma minority. These para-military groups are also seen as protection against the illegal immigrants and refugees which have been coming to Bulgaria for the last three years.

Migration crisis

The issue of migration has become one of the pillars of the current election campaign. Describing the migrant situation in Bulgaria, and more generally in Europe, as ‘catastrophic’, parties from the ‘Patriots’ coalition criticise the Bulgarian establishment for its incapacity to resolve the current crisis in the country, and oppose Brussels’ liberal migration policies which, according to them, will cause the destruction of European civilization. Thus, in a media environment full of rumours, fake news and lies, the ‘Patriots’ succeeded in transforming a relatively marginal problem into one of society’s priorities. This also helped them to present themselves as defenders of the Bulgarian population and Christian values from the invasion of Muslims. This xenophobic rhetoric closely corresponds with their positions on Roma and Bulgarian Turks.

Economic policy

In different forms, the parties oppose big international companies investing in Bulgaria, claiming that relations between these corporations and the Bulgarian state put the country’s population in a situation of “colonial slavery”. The parties of the ‘Patriotic’ coalition oppose the CETA agreement and stand for protectionism favouring Bulgarian small and medium-sized businesses. In a media interview, Angel Djambazki, a current MEP from VMRO and a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) EP grouping, stated that he voted against CETA despite the ECR instructions. The ‘Patriotic’ coalition also supports the creation of an independent Bulgarian energy system and the country’s transformation, with Russia’s help, into an energy hub for the region.

Euroscepticism

The ‘Patriots’ criticize so-called liberal values which “have brought Europe to desperation”. They perceive the EU as incapable of handling terrorism, and the migration and the financial crises. According to their leaders, these crises can be overcome with the adoption of the values of patriotism. In their 2013 programme, NFSB blamed the EU’s liberal values as the main reason why certain minorities (the Roma and Bulgarian Turks) were favoured at the expense of the Bulgarian majority. The government of Viktor Orban in Hungary is praised as a model for internal EU relations and his policy towards migrants as a successful response to the migration crisis.

Yet the whole coalition cannot be considered ‘Hard’ Eurosceptic, although Ataka argues that Bulgaria should leave the EU and join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). NFSB and VMRO, on the other hand, claim that they stand for a strong EU and strong nations, and oppose the EU’s development at different speeds; arguing that this will divide Europe into richer and poorer countries. They also support collaboration in the field of security and advocate further commitment to the common EU market. At the same time, they stand for protectionist policies in favor of national industries and claim that regulations from Brussels severely harm Bulgarian agriculture. While they support the EU as a big, free market, they also want specific state measures to be implemented in support of Bulgarian agriculture and industry.

The ‘Patriots’ also criticize the EU’s liberal positions regarding homosexuality and the rights of LGBT people which they see as destroying traditional social and family values. Thus, they advocate that questions regarding culture, the family and education should be left to the sovereign decisions of member states. In education they propose the introduction of “Patriotism” as a subject and military education. They also propose the re-introduction of mandatory military service which was abolished after the fall of communism.

 The “Patriots” strongly oppose the accession of Turkey to the EU, since they believe that it will be damaging both to the Bulgarian economy and society. They consider Turkish culture and Muslim religion as unacceptable in a Christian Europe. At the same time, the parties that comprise the coalition are not so unequivocal about EU sanctions against Russia. Thus, Ataka strongly opposes the sanctions claiming that they severely harm Bulgarian companies and agricultural producers. The party recognizes the annexation of Crimea as legitimate and even sent observers to its independence referendum in 2014. On the other side, VMRO and NFSB have a more nuanced approach towards these the sanctions. They argue that they have both political and economic aspects, and even if the Bulgarian economy suffers from the sanctions the political dimension is still important. Nevertheless, all of these parties claim that Bulgaria needs to deepen its political and economic relations with Russia.

 Electoral reform

 In the last parliament, NFSB and VMRO, who were part of the governing coalition, proposed a variety of restrictive electoral reforms most of which were aimed at limiting the possibilities to vote for representatives of the Roma and Turkish minorities. They supported the introduction of compulsory voting as well as the imposition of restrictions on voting abroad, the main target here being Bulgarian citizens living in Turkey. They also proposed the introduction of an educational census, which would restrict the electoral rights of people with only primary or secondary education, and the creation of a special committee to examine the deputy and minister candidates for their competence and patriotism.

Prospects for the 2017 election

The ‘Patriots’ are expected to receive between 7-9% of votes which will make them “king-making” power in the new parliament. This may make them of decisive significance for the kind of government that will be formed after the elections, since at this point opinion surveys show parity between the two main parties: the centre-right GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria) and the communist successor BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party). The ‘Patriot’ have indicated their willingness to form a coalition with either of these two parties; the only condition being that they follow the policies set out in the coalition’s programme. The ‘Patriots’’s coalitional flexibility comes from their rhetoric which explicitly rejects dichotomies such as right-left, and pro-West/pro-East that they consider to be false. Instead, they propose a union of national interests which would guarantee the stability of the next Bulgarian government and keep the status quo, but this time with a strong patriotic flavor.

Dragomir Stoyanov (dragomirstoyanov@gmail.com) is a lecturer at VUZF University, Bulgaria. His research focuses on political parties, elections, and democratization with a special emphasis on Central and East European politics.