Third time’s the charm? Healthcare populism in Bulgaria’s latest elections
For the third consecutive time this year Bulgarians are about to head to the polls in an effort to once again elect a parliament that might finally be able to produce a working majority. Not only that but on the same date, 14 November, Bulgaria will also be having the first round of its regular presidential elections pitting the incumbent Rumen Radev, who has effectively been running the country for the past 6 months through the appointment of his own caretaker governments, against opponents from many of the other major parties.
A new field of battle
While these two elections are a major and possibly earthshattering event in Bulgaria’s political landscape, the surrounding circumstances have made the situation far more complex. In Bulgaria, the COVID-19 pandemic has been heinously mismanaged since the start but combined with what turned out to be a year-long election campaign it took on a magnitude unseen anywhere else - currently Bulgaria boasts the 2nd highest number of deaths per capita in the world, one of the highest infection rates in Europe and is the least vaccinated country in the EU.
This, in turn, has meant that these latest parliamentary elections that were once again supposed to be a clash between the status quo (including ex-PM Boyko Borissov’s centre-right GERB party and the liberal DPS, both of which are mired in scandals) and the reform-minded “new” political parties (such as “We continue the change”, headed by two ex-caretaker government ministers, the centre-right anti-corruption “Democratic Bulgaria” coalition and several others) have been transformed into a war on the field of COVID and vaccines.
Political fatigue and its consequences
Nearly a year of political campaigning has left the coffers of parties drained and their proposals tired and forgotten. With no better alternatives to motivate voters, Bulgaria’s politicians have been resorting to ad-hoc populist rhetoric that fits already prevalent narratives – such as vaccine and COVID-19 skepticism and fears of a plethora of imaginary threats. The decision to begin mandating the use of some albeit extremely watered-down version of the EU’s Green Certificate ended up being a massive turning point. It laid bare the stark differences between Bulgaria’s political elite and their desire to implement somewhat unpopular decisions and the approaches taken by governments in the rest of the EU.
Incumbent president Rumen Radev, who is up for re-election on 14 November, commands a massive lead over his opponents and was de facto running the country through the appointment of caretaker governments, quietly confessed to being vaccinated just a couple of months ago. A majority of his opponents, meanwhile, have openly claimed that the pandemic is either overblown or doesn’t exist. Combined with a health minister who was openly vaccine-sceptic before joining the government and with an increasingly complicated political climate, this has led to an 80%-strong majority of Bulgarians refusing to take the vaccine.
A refusal of parties to take unpopular stands in the middle of this year-long election campaign, national TV stations platforming vaccine-sceptic doctors and a healthy dose of disinformation spread by foreign stakeholders has made it impossible for the country’s leaders to even consider taking a pro-vaccine stance. Together all these factors have revealed the dangers of political paralysis in a time of crisis – the preference of political stakeholders to take the easy way out in order to gain a couple of hundred additional votes has contributed to thousands of deaths and have pushed Bulgaria’s healthcare system to the brink of collapse.
When populism and reality collide
Ultimately, it is highly likely that this exact behavior might be rewarded by voters on 14 November. The openly vaccine-sceptic line taken by some of the parties has given them an obvious edge, while even the vaccine-hesitant ones have stagnated – never mind those few who advocate for a stronger vaccine roll-out. The far-right, allegedly Russia-backed and anti-vax “Vazrazhdane” (Revival) party has been one of the primary beneficiaries, coming into striking distance of the 4% barrier to enter in the parliament, while those who oppose the EU’s Green certificate in the name of personal liberties, such as the conservative centre-left Bulgarian Socialist Party among many others, have also managed to clutch some additional votes.
In the end, however, it should not come as a surprise if after the elections have gone by and should the new reform-minded parties manage to form a government – something that, according to polls and their leaders’ statements, seems somewhat likely – the tune will once again shift. As is the case with populist movements everywhere around the world, the pre-election rhetoric will not be able to keep up with the realities that unfold. And once the parties in government realize that they will have to go back on all their talk about the dangers of vaccines, their voters will be pushed even further into fringes – again feeling abandoned, lied to, and even more vulnerable when the next crisis strikes home.
In chaos, opportunity
With this almost certain shift in mind, one cannot ignore the opportunities that arise. Due to its incredibly low vaccination rate, Bulgaria stands out as an ideal spot to explore different approaches to dealing with the pandemic. With research and development of different COVID-19 solutions, it is precisely countries that have not been vaccinated that will serve as testing grounds for all manner of medication and products, while simultaneously providing ample data for researchers in different fields.
The situation in Bulgaria also serves as a cautionary tale for what happens when information is turned on its head. Proper advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns have been entirely lacking for the past 2 years which has resulted in heavy resistance to solutions as well as a staggered or almost non-existent response to certain aspects of the pandemic. This lack of proper communication on policies, as well as the complete silence of stakeholders who were directly impacted by the pandemic has created a vacuum that has been filled with fearmongering and has made the successes of other countries who did manage to properly provide information to their citizens even more apparent.
As RPP we will be closely monitoring and analysing the elections and the set-up of the new government. Do not hesitate to contact us should you seek support in navigating through the newest developments.