Bulgaria elections 2017: From populism to polling stations to poverty and an epilepsy epidemic

At the beginning of the final two weeks ahead of Bulgaria’s March 2017 parliamentary elections, politicians continued criss-crossing the country and television studios hawking their political wares.

These, on March 13, ranged from GERB calling on people to vote for it to “resist populism”, to the Bulgarian Socialist Party denouncing GERB for Bulgaria being the EU’s poorest country, to the Reformist Bloc calling for a rethink on opening polling stations in Turkey to a United Patriots’ co-leader alleging welfare fraud: “There are entire villages in Montana where every gypsy has epilepsy”.

In Dulovo, a town of some 6000 people in the Silistra province in north-eastern Bulgaria, GERB campaign chief Tsvetan Tsvetanov called on all Bulgarian citizens to vote for GERB “to resist populism and the fear wrought by our opponents”.

Tsvetan Tsvetanov at the GERB town hall meeting in Dulovo.

Tsvetanov said that he believed that many people in “mixed regions” – meaning those with populations including Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity – would support GERB on March 26 “because the party has proven itself as the only alternative to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms”.

The Reformist Bloc-Glas Naroden coalition picked up the controversy over alleged Turkish government interference in Bulgaria’s parliamentary election campaign, calling on President Roumen Radev and caretaker Prime Minister Ognyan Gerdzhikov to “reconsider” the opening of polling stations in Turkey.

The coalition said that the Foreign Ministry should clearly put to Ankara the borders in relations between Bulgaria and Turkey “in an election situation that categorically excludes the intervention of ambassadors in the process”.

“For Bulgaria relations with Turkey are of paramount importance and the Turkish ambassador must unequivocally respect the sovereignty of Bulgaria,” the Reformist Bloc-Glas Naroden statement said.

The BSP’s Vessela Lecheva, formerly a sport shottist who peaked with silver at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, said in a bTV interview that all statistics showed that Bulgaria was the poorest country in the EU.

“We have an economy based on EU funds, on migrants, on people who work outdoors and most of all on funds from public procurements,” Lecheva said.

This was why, she said, the BSP platform focused on Bulgaria’s economy, “on the small and medium businesses, on Bulgarian production and especially on young people – those who will tomorrow be the backbone of the Bulgarian economy”.

“But young people want security in every aspect. If their intelligence and skills can mean they will succeed in Bulgaria, they will stay here. But they do not feel that the state will help them when they need,” Lecheva said.

Vessela Lecheva, BSP ticket leader in Veliko Turnovo in Bulgaria’s March 26 2017 elections.

She scorned GERB for what she described as that party having made education a priority now, in the election campaign, after having “thrown the entire system into chaos”.

In Turgovishte, a town with a population of about 60 000 in north-eastern Bulgaria, Krassimir Karakachanov – co-leader of the nationalist Patriotic Front – reeled off a list of problems as his coalition saw them, including conventional everyday crime.

The solution included hard labour for offenders, with courts on duty to sentence offenders the same day that prosecutors lay charges “and the convict goes to hammer stones or dykes along the Danube or on Borissov’s favourite highways,” Karakachanov said.

Another problems, as he saw it, was illegal immigration. “It is clear that Bulgaria should not take illegal immigrants”.

Additional people should be sent to the border, he said, issuing a reminder that the United Patriots wanted the introduction of six-month compulsory military service for “all educated Bulgarians” and 12 months “labour and training service” for the uneducated and illiterate.

Karakachanov repeated the nationalists’ insistence that a minimum pension of 300 leva (about 150 euro) was entirely possible.

Should the social system be re-examined and fake disabilities eliminated, the money would be easy to find, he said.

“There are entire villages in Montana where every gypsy suffers from epilepsy and gets 300 to 350 leva a month,” Karakachanov said, adding that examining decisions on disability payments would show that “in Bulgaria there are as many people ill with epilepsy as there are around the world”.

This was a huge fraud, Karakachanov said. In Bulgaria, he said, there 988 000 people with various disabilities who were getting disability pensions, while the “true figure” was about 150 000. Eliminating this fraud would save the state about a billion leva, he said.

VMRO party leader and United Patriots co-leader Krassimir Karakachanov.

There was cynicism “a total disinterest in the fate of the common man, especially towards people in small towns, not to mention the villages,” Karakachanov said.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms’ chief electoral team was in the party’s stronghold Kurdzhali region, holding election meetings in Chernoochene, Dzhebel, Kirkovo, Momchilgrad and Krumovgrad.

MRF leader Mustafa Karadaya told a meeting in Dzhebel: “In 1989, we barehandedly stood united against the totalitarian state and manage to overthrow the regime to bring a republic to our country. This pure and holy republic in which all we are equal – both Bulgarians and Turks.

Invoking Vassil Levski, the 19th century liberation struggle hero who advocated a free Bulgaria in which all ethnicities and faiths had equal status, Karadaya said that the MRF had followed the way of the covenant of Levski for 27 years.

“Only that there are some people who call themselves patriots, but patriots just in words. The Council of Europe calls the fascists,” Karadaya said.

DOST party leader Lyutvi Mestan went to the Sixth Quarter of Nova Zagora – a town in Sliven province in south-eastern Bulgaria with an overall population of just more than 23 000.

A huge number of people came to greet Mestan, a DOST statement said. “Right at the outset, they said that this was the first time in 27 years that a party leader had stepped into the mud of their neighbourhood, and with a lot of pain, they began to list the problems of their hard lives”.

Mestan, the statement said, was indignant that for 27 years, the streets of the quarter were full of holes and thick mud. There was no water supply – water is supplied in carts. Nor were there kindergartens, in spite of the law mandating kindergarten attendance after the age of four.

The local government of Nova Zagora had allowed the Sixth District to become a ghetto, subjecting its citizens to full discrimination – ethnic, religious and socio-economic “which is equal to genocide”, he said.

Mestan said that in the first days of the 44th National Assembly, he would not cease to pester the executive to pave the streets, build a sewage network and build kindergartens in the district, going on to pledge that he would visit the district every year to give an account of his actions.

(Main photo: A town hall election meeting in Dulovo, Bulgaria: gerb.bg)




Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.