(DF) The Populism Pandemic and the Good News about It

June 24 (Roumen Yanovski of BTA) – As Bulgaria moves from one run-up to elections to another, populism has emerged as the staple approach to the public. No decent analysis of Bulgaria’s current state of affairs can do without mentioning “populism”. The local political context is dominated by great expectations and scary scenarios. Various audiences share а desire for a change (without а clear idea of what this change should be) and are determined to vote; other groups – disappointed or indifferent – are undecided and need to be galvanized. Within such a framework, populism becomes endemic and politically ubiquitous. It has proven to be contagious, is not limited to campaign promises, and has affected policy-making (the ideas of a new constitution and wider use of referendums being two outstanding examples). The Bulgarian political establishment has a long-standing tradition in practicing populism. The so-called transitional period, which began in 1990 with the fall of communism and the transition to capitalism, offered an endless succession of painful decisions affecting living standards and the social security of citizens. However, promising unpleasant things goes against the very principle of political campaigning and thus resulted in strange combinations of slogans that now look ridiculous. (One of the most memorable examples was the 1990 Bulgarian Socialist Party motto УSuccess for BulgariaФ, during a deficit period, which is still remembered by many with empty shelves in Bulgarian stores, as well as the food stamp-coupon system). Since then, every sober socio-economic plan had to be embedded in some populist advertising packaging, using phrases that reduce negative possibilities and focus on positive effects only. The short-lived 45th National Assembly offered spectacular illustrations of populism. Suffice it to mention a May 5 debate on a rise of pensions, where the voices of reason coming from expert circles – or simply those prompted by common sense – were immediately drowned in waves of populist juxtaposition. Populism is usually curbed by the responsibilities of a government elected by Parliament. Powerholders of whatever political affiliation are supposed to be less prone to it since their promises are more easily checked against the rude reality of life. The moment they step down, however, they catch the populism bug as they join the race for the souls and hearts of voters. This is exactly what happened to GERB in the 45th National Assembly. Not only did they second a motion by There Is Such a People (TISP) for slashing party subsidies (from 8 to 1 lev per valid vote): they themselves moved a bill to replace the proportional representation system with a majoritarian system, which was a pivotal idea in TISP’s campaign. As political rivals try to outdo each other in the populism department, the political perspective gets so distorted that one could hardly distinguish between left, right, or liberal ideology anymore. There is no stopping as they slide down the populism slope: what if a party proposed a national referendum on introducing a 1,000,000 leva minimum monthly wage? Populism in Bulgaria has evolved from a disease to a pandemic. It affects the general perception of political life by creating an imaginary world of easy solutions (where drafting the national budget is easy, collecting taxes is easy, organizing elections is easy, democracy is easy). This also affects political rhetoric. On the one hand, politicians resort to grotesque forms of compassion and care for the poor and vulnerable (to quote Manol Genov MP: “I implore you, let us vote through this bill, for the sake of Bulgarian pensioners: let them have at least a sparkle of light in the dark tunnel where you have left them”). On the other hand, it encourages the use of jargon and slang as politicians endeavour to reach wider strata. Words like “busters” started cropping up in party leaders’ and MPs’ interviews for the national media. Another ongoing fad is calling political opponents “thugs”. The only good news here is that as populism becomes prevalent, so does the word itself, and as political opponents accuse each other of populism, the word comes to denote something bad. In Bulgarian, putting all academic interpretations aside, “populism” is used to refer to demagoguery rather than to a particular political concept. This is a good start: identifying populism as a brand of political evil. RY// /DT/