Bulgarian politics, compared to British politics, is inverted. To the outsider it must seem confusing, perhaps marginally more comprehensible than having to explain the ins and outs of cricket: ‘The side that go out are in…’ etc
Consider this for starters. Bulgaria, despite 45 years of socialism, does not really have a welfare state. That may surprise you. The reason is ironic. Its economic system was built on an assumption of full employment. So nobody – theoretically – would need state benefits. The whole economic model failed. People were paid a pittance. ‘You pretend to pay me and I pretend to work,’ became the joke. The system generated no wealth. Bulgaria, of all the eastern bloc countries, was the most firmly wedded to the Soviet economic model. Even board games liable to incite capitalist thinking – like Monopoly – were never sold in the shops.
Hence there was little support for the poor once the market economy emerged. A little unemployment benefit but not much. Housing benefit? Income support? Forget it! And, yes, you do see poverty. Too many pensioners seem to be rifling through bins. But you don’t see people starving.
The reason is that families help each other. That’s worth repeating. Families help each other! Youngsters who can’t afford to leave home live with their parents. The taxpayer is not expected to fund people’s housing. The taxpayer couldn’t afford this anyway.
Elections will take place later this year. The ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party is deeply unpopular. It only won last year’s elections through shady deals with some very unlikely allies. Now here’s the tricky part. In Bulgaria the young are predominantly right-wing. Yet they would not say they are ‘conservative’. In Bulgaria the term ‘conservative’ is more identified with the Left. Confused?
Well, young people, you see, would define themselves as progressives. In Bulgarian terms this means they generally support liberal, free market, private enterprise solutions. They have been the biggest demonstrators against the Socialist government over the past year. They look to the West.
Supporters of the Socialist Party (many of whose members are descendants of the old Communist Party) are mostly older people who look back on communism through red-tinted spectacles, remembering its ‘stability’. And they have a very conservative mindset. They don’t like change. They felt more comfortable when the Russian bear was Bulgaria’s protector.
One of the good things about the next parliament is that the ultra-nationalist party Ataka will probably be out of parliament. I was discussing with my wife this extremely nasty group. I described it as extreme Right. She disagreed and said that Ataka is more likely extreme Left. True, its enemies are Muslims, Jews, Gypsies and Turks (the usual targets) but she pointed out its advocacy of nationalisation and expelling foreign companies from Bulgaria. She also noted its support for Putin’s annexation of Crimea and its generally pro-Russian leanings.
The more I see of politics, the more convinced I become of the horseshoe theory by which extreme right and extreme left join up in the end anyway. Both are authoritarian, nationalistic, anti-private enterprise and intolerant of opposition. Think of Doriot, Mussolini and Mosley. And in the modern era think of Alain Soral in France or Horst Mahler in Germany – all of whom started out on the Left but ended up on the Far Right. We should be wary of both extremes. And I’d venture to say that there will be more examples of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in the future.
Gabriel Hershman lives in Sofia