October 25, 2010 § 5 Comments
Who lives there?: 7.5 million people. About 80% are ethnic Bulgarian, with Turk (10%) and Roma (5%) the largest minorities. About 70% of the population live in cities. Since around 1990 Bulgaria has had one of the lowest population growth rates in the world – the population is falling by about 74,000, or 1%, a year and in the last 20 years Bulgaria’s population has fallen by around one and a half million.
How does the system work? (the theory): Bulgaria has an elected President and a Prime Minister appointed by the unicameral parliament. It is hard to say which is more powerful: the President has greater power over foreign policy and the Prime Minister greater power over legislation. Both have executive powers, but as it is the Prime Minister who chairs and appoints the cabinet it could be argued that the PM has more.
The President is elected by first past the post with a maximum of two five-year terms. If the president does not win 50% of the vote, or if turnout is lower than 50%, then there is a second round vote between the top two candidates. The unicameral parliament, the Narodno Sabranie, is elected by closed list d’Hondt PR with 28 constituencies electing 240 members for four year terms with a 4% threshold.
Bulgaria has a reasonably powerful local government framework. The highest tier, the regional government, is appointed centrally but does not have much power. The next tier, the municipalities, has a great deal of power and can petition the state to become “self-governing municipalities” and so exercise reasonably wide ranging autonomy. The municipalities are governed by a municipal council, elected by closed list d’Hondt PR. In addition the municipalities can (and in most urban areas do) divide their remit up into a number of mayoralties – each governed by a directly elected mayor.
There is some provision for direct democracy through petitions and referendums in Bulgaria, but it has never really taken off at the national level. However local referendums are quite common – as are general assemblies of the people in small communities.
How does the system work? (the practice): Bulgarian democracy functions well. However there are problems with under-representation and exclusion of Roma, female and homosexual candidates. Homosexuality was only legalised in 2002 under pressure from the EU, and recent surveys show 80% of the public have a negative, and 55% a strongly negative, attitude to homosexuality.
Organised crime exerts considerable influence and there is a huge problem with corruption in the judiciary.
How did we get here?: There have been Slavic Bulgar empires since at least 600 AD, at times controlling most of the Balkan peninsular. These empires have been interspersed with periods of Byzantine, Ottoman, Russian and Serbian rule. The modern state of Bulgaria dates from the peace treaty of 1878 between Turkey and Russia – and the desire on both sides to have a buffer state. Its current borders are largely the result of a series of wars in the balkans between 1908 and 1913.
Bulgaria was a hereditary monarchy for many centuries. However, in 1943 the Tsar (Boris III) died leaving his three year old son (Simeon II) in charge. Simeon’s regents were very unpopular, as was his fathers policies with respect to WW2 (Bulgaria joined the Axis and fought alongside Germany, but refused to co-operate with the invasion of Russia or participate in the Holocaust). As a result there was a communist revolution in 1944, and the monarchy was abolished in 1946.
Bulgaria was a one party state until the collapse of communism in 1989. Its transition to meaningful democracy was rocky but was completed by the mid nineties. Since then politics has been dominated by two forces: the left-wing post-communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (which has recently set itself up as part of a broad coalition of centre-left parties called the Coalition for Bulgaria), and a liberal centre right party, the National Movement for Stability and Progress, which formed around the figure of the would-have-been-Tzar Simeon II (or Simeon Saxe-Koburg Gotha, as he now called himself). The latter won the 2001 elections and so, 55 years after he was deposed as Tsar, Simeon became Prime Minister – one of the only times in history this has happened.
However, they badly lost the 2005 elections and so a new centre-right force (conservative this time), the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, emerged. As a result the National Movement has faded rapidly: at the last set of elections they were totally wiped out in Parliament and Simeon resigned.
Who’s in charge?: The President was last elected in 2006 when the country was swinging left, and so Georgi Parvanov, of the Socialist Party, was easily re-elected. Such was the lack of contest that even though he easily won on the first round (with 64% of the vote), turnout dropped below 50% and so a second round was necessary. He won even more convincingly in the second round with 74% of the vote.
The Parliament on the other hand was last elected in 2009 when the country was swinging right. The Citizens for European Development didn’t quite secure a majority (116 of 240 seats), but with the opposition so fragmented and the finishing line so close they have been able to form a minority administration. Boyko Borisov is the Prime Minister.
The Coalition for Bulgaria lost more than half of their seats and ended up on 40. Their former allies, the liberal Union for Rights and Freedoms, whose support is primary drawn from the Turkish minority (and who advocate for Turkish causes) almost overtook them, winning 38 seats.
The rest of the seats went to right wing parties. Eurosceptic, anti-Turkish National Union Attack won 21 seats. The moderate conservative Blue Coalition won 15 (a huge blow for them, they had been a major force with more than double this number of seats), whilst the new centre-right anti corruption Order, Law and Justice party won 10 seats (since then two have defected and now sit as independents – making them officially not a party under Bulgar law.
The Trade Unions are not the power that they were in Bulgaria, but there are powerful civil society, regional, and ethnic lobbies.
What does it look like?: Bulgaria has quite varied geography and climate. In general the west is reasonably alpine (the Balkan mountains and the start of the Carpathians), the east is mild and dominated by the sunny Black Sea coast, the north is a continental plain dominated by the Danube and the south is fairly Mediterranean. The country has a dense river network – almost all of which flow into the Danube.
What are the issues?: There aren’t any issues of overwhelming importance. Corruption is a big issue and there are occasionally ethnic tensions – particularly around the Turkish and Roma populations. Probably the biggest issue is the economy. Following rapid deregulation and the end of the planned economics of Communist times the economy collapsed completely. The situation reached a nadir when hyperinflation hit in 1996. Since 1997 the economy has been more stable and has been slowly recovering, but standards of living are still lower than in most neighbouring countries.
Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, and hoped to benefit from EU aid. However following concerns about corruption EU aid to Bulgaria was suspended for a year in 2008 – and 50% of it has been scrapped entirely.
A good source of impartial information is: Whilst Bulgaria has a vibrant free press there are concerns that organised crime syndicates are bringing pressure to bear on many journalists at the behest of political parties. Reporters Without Borders have gone so far as to say they have grave concerns about this – however it is not yet a widely held view. Dnevnik is the only one of the major national dailies to have English language pages.
A good book is: Obviously King Ottokar’s Sceptre. The similarly named Bulgaria (Nations in Transition), Bulgaria: The Uneven Transition (Post-Communist States and Nations), and Bulgaria in Transition (Eastern Europe After Communism) were all well received. I’ve placed them in order from most accessible to most detailed. Bulgaria: problems in politics was written in 1919, but is free, which is nice.
When are the next elections?: Elections for the legislative will be in 2014. The President will be elected in 2011 and Parvanov cannot stand again.