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‘Democratic Bulgaria’ – the urban liberal reformists

Leaders of Democratic Bulgaria. Hristo Ivanov is third from left [Dnevnik]

The ‘Democratic Bulgaria’ Coalition is the fifth and possibly the last political formation in Bulgaria with a chance to enter the European Parliament in the upcoming elections. This coalition is made up of three parties that do not have much in common at first glance. Krassen Nikolov has the story.

Surveys show that support for Democratic Bulgaria has grown over the last two months and that there could be a real chance for them to have one representative in the European Parliament. This coalition is the largest among the small political formations in the country, but is still too small to change the internal status quo.

The coalition was formed by Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB), “Yes, Bulgaria” and “The Greens” party. DSB is a centre-right party with strong conservative roots, Russophobic and anti-communist focus. It is EPP-affiliated, just as Boyko Borissov’s GERB, but although the two forces sit together in the European family, they are not in good terms internally. DSB was created in 2004 by former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov. The force is a product of the collapse of the big centre-right party formed  in the first years of the Bulgarian transition – the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS). The Greens are a traditional, ecologically oriented party with more leftist beliefs and a pro-European orientation. “Yes, Bulgaria” is affirming itself as a classic urban liberal party with a strong focus on judicial reform and the rule of law.

These three very different parties joined in a coalition in April 2018. Their main motive was political survival. “Yes, Bulgaria” and DSB didn’t manage to cross the 4% barrier for entering the Bulgarian Parliament in the 2017 elections. After that the two parties made timid attempts to act together but failed because they were created on a very different conceptual basis. The election failure was sobering and both parties made efforts to get closer. The common goals were quickly found – judicial reform, fight against corruption, guaranteeing the European project in Bulgaria. On this basis the Greens were also involved, adding a strong environmental component in the new coalition.

“We, the parties that create “Democratic Bulgaria”, claim that the corrupt government model established by GERB, BSP and MRF robs the country’s future, attacks the democratic values ​​on a daily basis, replaces the Euro-Atlantic election of Bulgaria and deprives young generations from the prospect of building life in a free and democratic society”, declared the members of the new coalition at its creation.

Democratic Bulgaria faces many problems. The coalition must overcome the tremendous mistrust which has been accumulated over the past few years even among its own electorate. The new liberal formation is the successor to the “Reformist Bloc”, which was founded in 2013 by seven small right-wing and centrist parties. The political project of the “reformers” was the same as that of “Democratic Bulgaria”. The centre-right voters were cheated in 2014 that the Reformist Bloc would be the opposition of GERB, but after the elections they decided to join the ruling coalition led by Boyko Borissov. There was a rapid disintegration within a year because of the failure of the judicial reform.

“Democratic Bulgaria” is the product of the disappointed with this unsuccessful attempt to reform the Bulgarian judicial system. The leader of “Yes, Bulgaria” is Hristo Ivanov – a former justice minister from the second Borissov government. He resigned in December 2015 after GERB changed fundamentally his blueprint for constitutional amendments. Ivanov’s goal was to restructure the Supreme Judicial Council and restrain the power of the Prosecutor General. But he failed. At that time, DSB was part of the “Reformist Bloc”. This force also left the government after the failure of constitutional reform and has quarreled with its coalition partners. The legacy that Democratic Bulgaria has to overcome is the unholy nature of its former coalition with Borissov, the constant scandals and the failure of the Reformist Bloc.

The other two issues that the young coalition is facing aren’t easy to solve either. The supporters for Democratic Bulgaria are concentrated in Sofia. Structures outside the capital are too weak and cannot provide a solid basis for expansion. The coalition relies on chaotic vote motivated with the defence of the country’s European development. Here comes the third big problem. Although Bulgarians are traditionally Euro-optimists, Bulgaria remains the poorest country in the EU. For this reason the majority of Bulgarians see EU membership as an opportunity to raise their incomes. The vote motivated by the protection of values ​​such as the rule of law remains locked in the largest 3 or 4 cities in the country.

In the 2014 parliamentary elections the Reformist Bloc won 8.9% of the votes and was the fourth political force after GERB, BSP and DPS. Now Democratic Bulgaria is ranked fifth in influence. The nationalists “United patriots”, who are in the government with GERB, are ahead of the right coalition. Opinion polls have suggested that only GERB, BSP and DPS would be able to elect MEPs.

To fulfill its potential Democratic Bulgaria should become significantly more recognizable outside Sofia but without being associated with the failure of the “reformers”. It also needs more partners, and finding such is an extremely difficult task. Outside the coalition for now are the Union of Democratic Forces and the party of the former EU Commissioner Meglena Kuneva – Bulgaria for Citizens (EPP-affiliated). (Kuneva took in the meantime the job of EU ambassador to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.) The common actions with them carry a huge risk of reminiscences for the failure of the Reformist Bloc. The Union of Democratic Forces has not yet determined whether it wants to stay in the urban right or go further right towards the nationalists. Kuneva’s party is still suspected to sympathize with GERB. These two forces remain the only opportunity for “Democratic Bulgaria” to expand, but there is a risk of the opposite effect to occur, by disappointing core voters.

The serious problems that the urban right party is facing can hardly be resolved before the European elections. “Democratic Bulgaria” will try to become more recognizable in its current format and will rely on a strong pro-European vote amid a broadening of the influence of the nationalists and the compromise policy of GERB. The bet is big. The failure to have at least one representative in the future European Parliament would show that the urban liberal right party has no future in this format.

In the current European Parliament, the urban liberal reformists are represented by one MEP – Svetoslav Malinov, representing Democrats for Strong Bulgaria.

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