Paupers and Presidents

The disconsolate headline refers not to Ireland but to Bulgaria. The parliamentary republic tucked away in the south-east of the Balkan peninsula will be electing a new Head of State today 4 days ahead of Ireland (with provision for a second round if the 50% threshold is not reached by any candidate)..

It is hard to say to how much of the glum Bulgarian present will turn out also to be Ireland’s future as it carries the weight of a gargantuan bankers bail-out. The World Bank describes a country which has just under 8 million people as an ‘upper middle-income economy’. But this claim is hardly borne out by observing the number of distressed people scrabbling in refuse bins in Sofia where I’ve just spent ten days. The faded elegance of their clothes would suggest that they once knew much better lives. One-fifth of the population in fact live below the poverty line while the working poor comprise one-third of employed citizens and the elderly receive only a pittance in pensions.

Since the fall of communism in 1990, Bulgarians have known decades of austerity. The personal dictatorship of Tudor Zhivkov was far less extreme than that of his neighbour in Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu and the centenary of his birth this autumn has produced understandable nostalgia for the era of enforced egalitarianism. What followed was an imitation of capitalism that disproportionately benefited well-placed political insiders and their economic clients. But the system was sufficiently broken up to allow room for genuine entrepreneurial spirit as shown by the flourishing tourist industry on the coast and the numerous small retailing outlets in the major cities.

The worst-governed period in the mid-1990s saw banks giving loans to cronies in the state structures and the favoured parts of the private economy. The ex-communist Bulgarian Socialists were back in charge and soon the national debt reached 81% of GDP followed by inflation of 200% and a collapse in purchasing power. Politically, the left remains in contention but has never really recovered from this ignominious period.

The centre-right was swept in to office in 1997 with an absolute majority after a popular revolt. A currency board supervised by the IMF nursed the country’s battered finances back to health. But no real improvement took place in living standards and in 2001 it was the turn of the former King Simeon Saxacoburgskki to rule for four years at the head of a newly-created party. His pan-European links enabled Bulgaria to make progress in its bid for EU membership. Meglena Kuneva who negotiated entry in 2007 and then became Bulgaria’s first EU commissioner is the highest-profile presidential candidate. When I met her last week , this fluent and icy calm Eurocrat seemed a cross between the nearly-candidate for Fine Gael, Pat Cox and Mary Davis.

The government is currently in the hands of Citizens for European Development (GERB), a populist force initially with an anti-party message but which is adept at using the state machine to get its way and reward its supporters. Its candidate , Rossen Plevneliev, is a self-made man with only light political connections whose lead in the polls might give encouragement to Sean Gallagher.

The Bulgarians are a practical people, concerned with survival in hard times, so it is not surprising that they flee from the dreamy rhetoric of a Michael D. Higgins or the touch of exoticism that David Norris brings to the campaign here. They are stolid and enduring but resent being taken for granted and since 1990s more than one bland establishment favourite has been trounced by a dark horse, so Bulgarian precedent offers no comfort for Gay Mitchell.

Turnout is sure to be lower than in Ireland where raw anger directed at the people whose decisions tossed the country into a deep economic hole still remains muted. There is a chance that the Bulgarian turnout would be derisory but for the practice of buying votes. Parties use local fixers to supply them with political services in return for immunity from the law. Some of these chancers have ballooned into local godfathers who use intimidation to build up economic empires. Anyone who crosses them often finds that the law is no friend.

This was the case on 23 September when the central Bulgarian village of Katunitsa erupted into violence after an accomplice of the local baron, Kiril Rashkov ran over and killed a 19-year-old who had defied him. ‘Tsar Kyro’, is a Roma gypsy but these local barons belong to all ethnic groups . Nevertheless, the rallies and marches that occurred in many parts of Bulgaria after the villagers burnt down the Tsar’s mansion, assumed an anti-Roma character.

These were the worst scenes of inter-ethnic violence since 1990 and Bulgaria has a highly visible party called Ataka ready to exploit the underlying tensions. But intransigent nationalism is only a minority craze. Celebrations marking 150 years of Bulgaria’s liberation from the Turks , when they come around in 2027, are likely to be even more subdued than the 1916 centenary here. The emblematic figure is the emigrant or his children who have made good; one who turned heads when she returned on a visit earlier this month, Delma Rousseff is President of Brazil, the daughter of a Bulgarian who left in the last century.

At times, the mood in Bulgaria evokes Ireland in the 1950s. Bulgaria has the lowest fertility rate in the world and soon it will have the highest percentage of pensioners in the EU. In numerous deserted villages, locals have been replaced by British and Irish pensioners who have bought sturdily-built homes in beautiful locations where their own pensions last much longer than at home.

Sofia with good infrastructure and quiet dignity and charm, is the EU’s 15th largest city. The many young people still to be seen in its streets are likely to vanish abroad upon completion of their education. Years of austerity for the many and continued privileges for those closer to the ruling circles, has created an atmosphere of disillusionment. At least unlike the Irish, the Bulgarians have experimented with a wide range of democratic choices in the hope of enjoying better times. They will reject extremist candidates but most are likely to stay at home or else surrender their vote for €25 euros to the local clan boss. At least it will make survival through the winter that bit easier.

Tom Gallagher retired this year as Professor of Politics at Bradford University; the latest of his 6 books on the modern Balkans, Romania and the European Union was published by Manchester University Press in 2009 and a paperback edition is due out in February 2012..