Populism, Radical Right, and Socialist Nostalgia in Bulgarian Politics

Prof. Emilia Zankina, American University in Bulgaria

Similarly to trends across Europe, populism and radical right-wing politics have become an inextricable part of the political landscape in Bulgaria. Yet, some characteristics render the Bulgarian case unique and highlight the rather different underpinnings compared to, on the surface, similar political phenomena in the East and the West.

Radical right-wing parties have been present in the Bulgarian parliament since 2005, attracting 8-12% of the vote. This is a rather late appearance compared to the rise of the radical right in the West in the 1980s, or even compared to the emergence of radical right parties in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. On the one hand, this is due to the so-called “Bulgarian ethnic model” of tolerance and peaceful co-existence. Although nationalism was present at all times in Bulgarian politics, Bulgaria did not escalate into ethnic conflict despite a sizable Muslim minority and in contrast to the bloody wars in former Yugoslavia.

“For a long time, nationalistic discourse was monopolised by the Communist Party and its successor party”

On the other hand, for a long time, nationalistic discourse was monopolised by the Communist Party and its successor, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), in an attempt to fill in the ideological vacuum left by the de-legitimised communist ideology. Such a strategy was similarly adopted by the Romanian and Polish communist parties. Yet, the Bulgarian policies of ethnic homogenisation and forceful assimilation escalated into the infamous “renaming process and a mass exile of ethnic Turks in 1989, provoking an international outcry that largely contributed to the collapse of the communist regime. Even after the fall of the regime, the BSP continued to flirt with the seemingly paradoxical ideology of left-wing nationalism. Only when EU-accession negotiations started, did the BSP abandon its nationalist overtones, thus creating political space for radical right-wing parties to organise.

Characteristics of the Bulgarian Right

A common feature of most East European radical parties is the creation of a demonised “other”. In Bulgaria, the nationalist ATAKA (Attack) and the Patriotic Front (a coalition of two radical right parties) target primarily national minorities, namely ethnic Turks and Roma, who constitute 8% and 4.4% of the population respectively. Even in the context of the current migration crisis, questions of migration remain secondary and are mainly seen through the prism of national ethnic minorities, i.e. Muslim migrants radicalising domestic Muslim minorities. Targeting an “internal” rather than an “external” other means that exclusionary rhetoric and policies take on a different character as the minorities that need to be excluded share common citizenship, rights, and even history with the dominant majority.

The Bulgarian radical right retains socialist nostalgic, combining elements of left-wing and right-wing ideology. Nationalism, clericalism, and irredentism are mixed with neo-totalitarianism, welfare chauvinism, and nostalgia for the communist past. Such a clearly populist mix can be explained by the different foundation of the radical right in the East and the West.

“Eastern European right-wing populism is a response to difficult and prolonged democratic transitions and disillusionment with democracy”

The rise of the radical right in Western Europe is associated with postindustrial culture, party de-alignment, erosion of traditional cleavages, globalisation, multiculturalism, and immigration. By contrast, its East European counterpart is a response to difficult and prolonged democratic transitions and disillusionment with democracy. This is why the radical right in Eastern Europe relies on the so-called red-brown vote, attracting voters from the left and the right alike.

Although being far from the mainstream, radical right-wing parties in Bulgaria attract more than just the disenfranchised. Their support is spread across age groups, geographic location, and education levels, and they are rather popular with swing-voters. What distinguishes them from mainstream parties is the gender composition of their vote. Similarly to their Western counterparts, ATAKA and the Patriotic Front are Männerparteien, drawing support primarily from male voters. In the case of ATAKA, male votes have accounted for twice as many as female ones.

Increasing influence on the government

What is most disturbing is that in recent years radical right-wing parties have had an increasing influence on the government. Although ATAKA was never formally part of a governing coalition, the 2009 minority government of the Citizens of European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) relied on ATAKA’s support in parliament, who received in return a privileged treatment by the ruling party and important positions in parliamentary committees. The short-lived 2013-2014 socialist-dominated government of Oresharski also relied on ATAKA’s support, particularly when voting on foreign policy issues and energy policy, both areas directly related to Bulgaria’s relations with Russia. ATAKA is known to receive Russian support and to ardently defend Russian interests in the country – a recurring characteristic of right-wing parties across Europe.

“ATAKA is known to receive Russian support and to ardently defend Russian interests in the country”

However, the Patriotic Front has proven even more successful than ATAKA in gaining access to power, matching the success of other European nationalists such as the Austrian Freedom Party, the Swiss People’s Party, or the Danish People’s Party. Due to its less radical, though clearly nationalistic rhetoric, the Patriotic Front was invited into the current GERB-led governing coalition. Although the Patriotic Front holds no ministerial posts, it was given a share of governing positions, including that of deputy ministers. Moreover, the Patriotic Front has been very successful in pushing its nationalisti agenda, as demonstrated by the most recent change to the electoral law, which aims to effectively exclude ethnic minorities from voting.

Failed strategies against Bulgarian right-wing populism

Imitating right-wing populist parties in order to win over their electorate is not an advisable strategy, although in the Bulgarian context it has been applied very successfully. The Patriotic Front stole half of ATAKA’s votes by utilising slightly less radical, yet clearly nationalistic and populist rhetoric. The current ruling party, GERB, has been most successful in its populist appeal, enjoying already a second term in government.

“Imitating the right-wing populists has led to a contamination of the entire political spectrum”

Thus, imitating the right-wing populists has led to a contamination of the entire political spectrum, rather than shrinking support for the radical right. Integrating right-wing populist parties into government in order to “harness’’ them or expose their inefficiencies has also proved counterproductive. Instead of limiting their impact, access to government has enabled radical right-wing parties to push for undemocratic and discriminatory policies. Ignoring or shaming the populist radical right has in turn strengthened the appeal of its anti-establishment rhetoric.

Addressing the underlying causes of radical right-wing populism is the most advisable long-term strategy. Yet, we have seen that the populist radical right is equally successful both in the East and the West, despite very different reasons. Hence, the nature of right-wing populism is vividly captured by the metaphor of a chameleon that can change colours and adapt to different contexts. Certainly, reconnecting to voters, strengthening programmatic appeals, and practicing ethical and principle-led politics is needed not only to combat the populist radical right, but to assure the very existence of democracy. While this will not eliminate radical right-wing populists who would find another niche, it would limit their impact on governance.

Support for education, civil society, and women in government

The most suitable strategies for the Bulgarian context, and perhaps beyond, consist of support for education, civil society, and women in government. Having an enlightened and well-informed electorate, as well as a politically educated youth can go a long way in securing the democratic principles of governance and limiting the appeal of populist and radical right-wing parties. Strengthening civil society and citizen participation in governance can put an effective check on ruling parties, leading to greater transparency and accountability. The 2013-2014 waves of protests in Bulgaria have proven the effectiveness of citizen mobilisation.  Although radical right-wing parties have, to some extent, benefitted from the political instability caused by almost two years of protests, the citizens, who stand in opposition to such parties, are much more politically engaged, better-organised, and less susceptible to populist appeals than in the past.

“Greater inclusion of women in politics can have a moderating effect on political dynamics”

Lastly, greater inclusion of women in politics can have a moderating effect on political dynamics. While women are found to exhibit similar levels of nativism, authoritarianism, or discontent with democracy, they consider such issues less salient than men do and are less likely to act on such preferences. The populist radical right is here to stay, yet mainstream parties, active citizens, and government institutions have the instruments to limit the effects of this epidemic.

Emilia Zankina is an Associate Professor in Political Science and Provost at the American University in Bulgaria. Her research focuses, amongst other things, on populism and political parties in Western and Eastern Europe.