Yes, Bulgaria! leader criticises broken political model

Yes, Bulgaria! leader criticises broken political model
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia March 23, 2017

Bulgarian political parties are unlikely to be able to form a stable majority after the March 26 early election, and most probably yet another snap election will follow soon, Hristo Ivanov, the leader of the newly-formed anti-corruption party Yes, Bulgaria!, said in an interview with bne IntelliNews.

Bulgaria is about to hold its third early parliamentary election since May 2013 after the latest government under Boyko Borissov resigned in November. However, with Borissov’s Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) tied in the polls, the election is not expected to produce a stable government. 

Ivanov, who resigned from Borissov’s government at the end of 2015, is critical of Bulgaria’s political system as well as the lack of progress by successive governments in tackling corruption and breaking the hold of powerful “mafia” groups on politics. 

Bulgarian opposition politicians and activists have long criticised so-called “mafia” links between politicians, big business and organised crime. The persistent problem of organised crime in Bulgaria, albeit with some improvements recently, has been identified repeatedly in the European Commission’s annual CVM reports

“The process of internal decay of the Bulgarian corruption model [in politics], which began in 2013 and is happening due to systematic deficiencies, will continue, so the next parliament will also have a short and ignoble life,” Ivanov told bne IntelliNews in a telephone interview.

The former minister is a legal expert and noted advocate of judicial reform. He was among the most active participants in the protests in Sofia in the summer of 2013 against the then Socialist-led government of Plamen Oresharski. The protests that lasted for months erupted after the parliament appointed prominent media mogul Delyan Peevski to the key post of head of national security. This was seen as symptomatic of the murky ties between business and politics in Bulgaria. 

After becoming justice minister in the interim government appointed after Oresharski’s government resigned in 2014, Ivanov remained in the position in Borissov’s cabinet. However, he later resigned after the parliament watered down his plans for wide-reaching judicial reforms. 

He remains popular among many of the participants in the 2013 protests, and was seen as the obvious choice to head a new anti-corruption party keen to work to break the status quo. This led to the creation of Yes, Bulgaria! in January 2017.

Yes, Bulgaria! is very young and current polls do not indicate it will gain enough votes to enter the parliament on March 26, although its leader believes that it is gaining support fast enough to be in with a chance of entering the parliament, if not this time then after the next election.

The party has had a rocky road in the run-up to the election. It appeared it might fail to register at all after three legal challenges were filed against its registration as a party the day before the deadline. Yes, Bulgaria! was forced to form a coalition instead, opting to run alongside The Political Party of the Greens and the Movement for European Union and Solidarity (DEOS), rather than Radan Kanev, the founder of another new right-wing movement, who was seen as a more obvious partner. However, “no one pours new wine into old wineskins”, Ivanov explained.

More recently, the party has come under constant attack from the media. Ivanov claims Yes, Bulgaria! has been the subject of more than 800 critical pieces from media directly owned by or connected to Peevski.

Bad press for Yes, Bulgaria!

On March 13, local daily Telegraf gave away free copies of a 242-page book against Ivanov and other members of his party to its readers. The book, titled “Thieves of democracy. They plundered Bulgaria!”, was the first of two books containing accusations against Ivanov and other members of his party, as well as against Kanev, who launched the New Republic project ahead of the March election.

The edition was followed by a second book a week later, “The masks behind the curtains”, which was also distributed with Telegraf daily and had similar content.

Following complaints filed by Ivanov, the central election body halted distribution of both books, ruling that they violate the election campaign rules. Telegraf did not respond to a request from bne IntelliNews to comment on the situation. 

Ivanov says he believes the distribution of the books are a sign that his party is expected to enter the parliament, and confirmation of its status as a force against corruption.

“I may not be able to order a big poll, but if Mr Peevski is ready to spend that much money, which has been spent for this booklet, then he obviously bets on us to be in the next parliament,” Ivanov said. 

“[The attack] is exclusively focused on Yes, Bulgaria! No other political force at the moment is being attacked like this,” Ivanov said. The former justice minister believes that the reason behind these attacks is that his party speaks freely, is financially independent (its election campaign was financed by around 1,500 donations, each worth €100 on average) and asks questions that no one else dares to ask.

If the coalition passes the 4% threshold to enter the parliament, Ivanov claims it will be a strong opposition to the main political parties - GERB, the BSP, the predominantly ethnic-Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and the United Patriots coalition.

“Considering what political forces we expect to make up the majority in the Bulgarian parliament – DPS, GERB, BSP and the Patriots – political forces that have their origins in the state security, with a long history of lying – we can only be a very clear opposition to them,” Ivanov said.

Meanwhile, Yes, Bulgaria!, which is focused on reform of the judicial system, the fight against corruption and the strengthening of Bulgarian institutions, has pledged to have a strong influence on political life even from outside the parliament. According to Ivanov, the party has already had an impact on the election platforms of the two main political parties that are expected to compete to form a government in the next parliament. GERB and the BSP added the fight against corruption to their manifestos following the appearance of his anti-corruption party.

Judicial reforms in the works

While media attention at the moment is focused mainly on who will form the next government, Ivanov says that another very important process remains hidden from citizens – the ongoing changes to the Supreme Judicial Council.

“While we are focusing on the election of a new parliament, at the moment is being prepared, bargained also changes in the judiciary. The process of selection of the professional half of the high judicial council has now began, and next summer the new parliament will have to select the other half and this will determine the fate of the Bulgarian judiciary in the next five years,” Ivanov said.

Another key change that is being prepared the moment is the procedure for election of a new chairman of the Supreme Administrative Court, which is in charge of ruling on all decisions of the Bulgarian administration, including concessions, public tenders and the use of EU funds.