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Major Poles, ”Third Parties” and Bulgarian Multipartism

Maxmilián Strmiska

The study of the Bulgarian system of political parties assumed a relatively important position in the context of research in the genesis of party and political arrangements in post-communist countries of Central, South-East and Eastern Europe in the 1990s. It can be said that, in spite of certain delay, Bulgarian multipartism became one of the privileged subjects of that research, similarly to post-communist pluralisms in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic (and/or Czechoslovakia). The attention given to Bulgarian party system was not a mere coincidence. The fact is that apart from some endemic peculiarities, Bulgarian multipartism also showed – and still, to a large extent, shows - some distinct features of indisputable interest and importance for the construction of models of formation of pluralist party systems, features linked especially with the complex phenomenon of Bulgarian post-communist party and political (bi)polarisation and its medium and long term system forming consequences. This article is a contribution to the discussion about the remarkable aspects of Bulgarian post-communist multipartism. In this perspective, special attention will be paid to links between the Bulgarian model of major pole dualism (Union of Democratic Forces, SDS, and Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP), the format of its party system and the systemic effect of the “extended” (“protracted”) initial social and political polarisation. In this context, also some partial issues related with the evolution of the potential and role of “third parties” in present-day Bulgarian context will be briefly addressed.[1]

Throughout the 1990s, the Bulgarian party system was typical for a relatively small number of relevant parties and/or party alliances. It is interesting to note, in this context, that the question of classification (format definition) of the Bulgarian party arrangement during the greater part of the above mentioned period was rather a marginal aspect of the interpretation of polarity and functioning of the system. The Bulgarian party system has been most often classified as a limited multipartism or as a ”two and a half” party system; [2] of course only as long as the SDS - and eventually any other electoral formation of a major or minor importance for the Bulgarian party system functioning or profiling - was considered a single operational unit (cf. Golosov 1999; Kanev 1996; Karasimeonov 1995a; Karasimeonov 1995b; Karasimeonov 1996a; Karasimeonov 1996b; Schliewenz 1997; Szajkowski 1994). The extensive practice of electoral alliance and political bloc formation has been a natural obstacle to the identification of the actual number of independently operating relevant parties and alliances with a clearly defined identity, legitimacy and mobilisation sources. It has also been an obstacle to the verification of the total number and character of this or that way significant interaction fields or streams within the Bulgarian party arrangement. Let us make clear, however, that the above circumstances have not actually complicated the distinction between the two main party and political poles, i.e. the anti-Communist Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), and the post-communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). Nevertheless, the assessment of the potential of the ”sub-summed” interaction fields and minor parties and political actors involved in electoral alliances – which was the case, in the first place, of formations making up the SDS – has been a problem. Notwithstanding the above facts, it would be premature to fully accept the tempting thesis of the marked ideological dualism of the SDS and BSP being the principal factor of simplification of the Bulgarian party system, restricting its differentiation and fragmentation. Therefore it seems more plausible to adopt a complex view of the evolution trends, as well as of the functioning and reproduction mechanism of the Bulgarian party system in order to minimise the risk of precipitated conclusions and unfounded simplifications.

The Bulgarian scholar Georgi Karasimeonov pointed out the significant role of polarisation elements as the key moment of Bulgaria’s party arrangement evolution in the early 1990s and defined it as a confrontational bipolar model of party relations close to the famous Sartorian model of polarised pluralism. [3] According to him, the delayed differentiation of parties and the initial hegemony of (post)communists contributed to the initial bipolar model of inter-party relationship followed by a phase of relative consensus in approving the new Constitution, to be later overrode by the prevailing trend towards confrontation of the two irreconcilable blocks. However, the resulting party system model was based on several antagonisms – ideological, generational, socio-professional, as well as the ”purely opportunist” - which favoured the reproduction of confrontational politics and policy stereotypes (Karasimeonov 1996b: 262-263; Karasimeonov 1995b: 580; Waller, Karasimeonov 1996: 140; cf. Kanev 1996: 180-181). Interestingly enough, Karasimeonov conceived of the delayed differentiation of Bulgarian political parties as one of the necessary conditions for the institution and reproduction of a bipolar ”confrontational” arrangement and not – at least in the initial phase – as a direct consequence of the establishment of such model, while it is apparent that in this particular case one did not exclude the other (cf. Karasimeonov 1995a). It should be also pointed out that the interpretation of delayed differentiation of Bulgarian parties is a complex matter due to the need to take into consideration different circumstances, as well as the combination of diverse and varying factors that accompanied different phases of the Bulgarian party system evolution.

The above mentioned delay in differentiation of Bulgarian party formations can be explained as a more or less natural phenomenon resulting from the legacy of the previous regime, characterised as patrimonial communism (cf. Kitschelt, Mansfeldová, Markowski, Tóka 1999). Within this perspective underlining – apart from other aspects – the importance of mutually reinforcing socio-economical, cultural and political cleavages and differences in an environment favouring inconspicuous and feeble party and political programmatic crystallisation or programmatic structuring, the seemingly paradoxical connection between primitive bipolarisation and delayed process of differentiation within the Bulgarian party system could be explained, including the problematic, conflicting differentiation (especially in the first half of the 1990s linked with exaggerated comments on the ”syndrome of schism”) that was going on inside the different parties and alliances (cf. Kitschelt, Mansfeldová, Markowski, Tóka 1999: 200-204, 239-243; Waller, Karasimeonov 1996). Even though some elements characterising such link were discernible at the very beginning of the formation of post-communist Bulgarian multipartism (between the years 1989 and 1990/91), the system forming impact of the link between primitive bipolarisation and tardy party and political differentiation became clear only as late as between 1991 and 1994, i.e. in the period between the second and third ”free” parliamentary elections in Bulgaria. [4] In my opinion, and with a certain degree of simplification, the favouring of SDS and BSP (ideologically and programmatically underdeveloped and incoherent formations with a number of rather negative features from the point of view of establishing and developing a pluralist democratic system) as the major poles as well as the depreciation of the political potential of moderate centrist parties and of the ”centre” of the Bulgarian party and political system as such, can be identified as the key moments of the above system forming impact. [5] The ”centre” in fact became a sort of political periphery and was identified with the ”third” parties (cf. Todorov 1997; Gyuzelev 1997). [6]

As for the position and role of Bulgarian ”third parties”, the objective, within the above outlined perspective, is to realise that the position of such parties was influenced first of all by the specific polarisation (or bipolarisation) of party interactions and the heterogeneity of the ”centre”. Polarisation in the case of Bulgaria did not result in the establishment of a moderate centrist pole as a pillar of the regime and a privileged option for moderate electorate. Hence the failure of attempts at grasping the characteristic features of the Bulgarian party system using Sartori’s model of polarised pluralism, a model which presupposes the existence of a centrist ”system-favouring” pole. The case of the Bulgarian post-communist multipartism is interesting also for attempts at instituting such pole, as well as for the fact of such attempts being favoured by certain development trends which, however, never gained effective prevalence. Taking into account potential consequences of a series of splits affecting especially the Union of Democratic Forces (and the complex internal evolution of SDS linked with such splits in the first half of the 1990s), there was a probability of the socio-political polarisation favouring, to a large extent, the ”centre” as a decisive ”third force”, had it not been an incoherent cluster but a fully functional, sufficiently strong and credible bloc embodying the centrum securitatis for the different sectors of moderate electorate. [7] As a matter of fact, there was also the possibility of the transformed SDS playing the role of such pole, even though this alternative soon came to nothing due to the loss of the moderate sectors in the fight for power within the SDS. The loss of moderate reformists within the Union of Democratic Forces was thus accompanied first by a total failure of moderate centrists in the 1991 parliamentary elections and, subsequently, by another electoral failure in 1994. In 1991, both the ”new” and the ”old” (historical) ”third parties” which refused to play the role of satellites and acted independently or formed their own small alliances, became victims of bipolarisation, except for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) (cf. Szajkowski 1991; Szajkowski 1994; Shopov 1999). The relative success of DPS which in its new arrangement of a ”two and a half” party occupied a strategic position ”in between” the two irreconcilable major poles can be explained mainly by its specific and ”eccentric” position of an ethnic party (de facto ethnic party) which made its electoral and political potential irreducible and kept it “at a distance” with respect to the main competitive dimension based on ”decommunisation” cleavage (cf. Karasimeonov 1999: 113-114).

However, the Bulgarian ”two and a half” party arrangement variant only survived until the following parliamentary elections in 1994 when the confrontational politics and policy cycle closed and the consequences of erosion of the SDS political potential came to the surface. Symptomatically, Georgi Karasimeonov considered the pluralisation of the party system and the partial erosion of the bipolar model as the most significant result of the above mentioned elections (Karasimeonov 1995b: 584). Apart from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (with 43.5 % of votes which gave it the absolute parliamentary majority), [8] the SDS, and the DPS, another two formations got to the parliament: the right-centrist People’s Union (NS), i.e. the alliance of ”historical” Bulgarian parties based on a DP – BZNS (the Democratic Party and the Bulgarian Agrarian People’s Union) axis, and the populist party Bulgarian Business Bloc (BBB). Under the 4% threshold remained the ambitious left-centrist social-liberal alliance Democratic Alternative for the Republic (DAR; with only 3.8 % of votes) (cf. Karasimeonov 1995b: 582-583; Crampton 1995). Thanks to the People’s Union, the centrists, or one of the segments of the Bulgarian centrist sector, were partially successful, but the electoral defeat of DAR froze the hope for a significant and more or less symmetrical restructuring of the Bulgarian party system which would bring moderate ”centre-based” formations to the foreground. The project of forming a centrist pole (as the major and central pole in the proper sense of the word) proved to be mere utopia. Centrist forces could rather hope for asserting themselves in the medium run as small pivot parties fulfilling the delicate role of striking the political balance in the case of absence of a ”single-colour” homogeneous majority government. The escalation of economic crisis together with unsatisfactory performance of the socialist cabinet resulted in another socio-political polarisation, in winter 1996/97, which culminated in the fall of the BSP government and premature parliamentary elections won by the United Democratic Forces (ODS), a right-centrist ”alliance of alliances” hegemonized by the revived SDS. Apart from the ODS and BSP (or the Democratic Left alliance controlled by the BSP), other parties got to the Parliament, namely the Union for People’s Salvation (ONS, a noteworthy incoherent formation around the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, DPS, the Green Party, ZP, the New Choice Union, SNI, the Bulgarian Agrarian People’s Union - N. Petkov, and the Confederation “Kingdom Bulgaria”), the Euroleft Coalition (Evrolevica) and the Bulgarian Business Bloc (BBB). [9] This was undoubtedly a new party configuration whose stability was rather dubious as its formation was influenced by boom factors linked with previous polarisation (including the myth of ”January barricades” and ”supra-party” anti(post)communist movement in early 1997). Concentrating, in the above context, only on the issue of bipolarity and evolution of the Bulgarian party and political ”centre”, two significant system-forming aspects come to the foreground. First, the transformed SDS made use of another round of a mass anti(post)communist mobilisation to revive its electoral and political potential and alliance capacity[10] , thus identifying and/or inventing a very important tool for controlling the right-centrist sector of the Bulgarian party and political spectrum in the successful project of a new electoral bloc (ODS; including the NS alliance) [11] . Second, the relative success of Euro-leftists resulted in the formation of a new social-democratic oriented crystallisation core in the left-centre space whose potential had not been well used until then by the social-liberal centrists and the Bulgarian non-communist ”historic” social democrats (BSDP or its different factions).

Nevertheless, the electoral results in 1997, as well as the evolution of the arrangement in the following three years, were far from causing a radical restructuring of the ”centre” of the Bulgarian party system or any change in the way of its functioning. Yet the ”centre” valorised itself to a certain extent by pointing up the multi-party features of the Bulgarian system of political parties. The importance of the ”centre” and the potential of the centrist formations has slightly grown, but not to the extent of causing a clear turn in favour of small centrist parties. The lack of homogeneity and the atomised character of the Bulgarian political centre has played a crucial role in this respect. [12] In the medium term, there is little chance for the centrists to overcome the consequences of the lack of homogeneity and of atomised character of the Bulgarian party and political centre. The lack of homogeneity and organisational atomisation practically exclude the possibility of a classical centrist and “centre-based” party pole being formed (leaving aside the possibility of a drastic change of external conditions for the reproduction of the Bulgarian party system) and complicate the effective ”coverage” or control of the central space by the major poles, which is at the same time a significant advantage helping small centrist parties to survive as operational units independent from the major poles. It seems that the Bulgarian variant of major parties dualism (SDS versus BSP), no matter how much it was actually influenced by the repeated waves of centrifugal (bi)polarisation failed to avoid the problem of effective ”occupation” and/or control of the space ”in between” the two main formations which have been forced by circumstances to make use of alliance policy in an attempt at ”covering” the centre space by means of such compounded blocs, due to their failure to effectively occupy or control it themselves. [13] The significance of the ”fight for the centre” in the present day Bulgarian context is undoubtedly growing also due to the fact that the consequences of the previous waves of centrifugal polarisation are gradually being eliminated.

Poznámky / Notes

1) This paper represents a revised version of the article “Bipolarita, “třetí strany” a utváření postkomunistického multipartismu v Bulharsku. Teoreticko-metodologická poznámka” (SEPS, n. 2, 2000).
2) The ”two and a half party” system can be considered as a variant of limited multipartism (limited pluralism) format. However, we should not forget that these models are of different provenience – originally forming part of different schemes (Blondel, Sartori) - and that they are not quite identical. The format of limited multipartism (typical for the presence of three to five relevant parties) includes a wider range of configurations of relevant political parties than the concept of the ”two and a half ” party system, while Blondel’s model of the ”two and a half” party system includes both format aspects and - at least implicitly – type aspects related with a mechanics of party systems. The relation between the model of the ”two and a half” party system on the one hand and moderate multipartism (Sartorian ”moderate pluralism”) on the other can be considered as a more complex form of relation between the ”second and a half” party system and limited multipartism.
3) This concept of Bulgarian party system of Karasimeonov was basically identical with, say, that of Attila Ágh, who says that early post-communist party systems were a variant of polarised pluralism (cf. Karasimeonov 1996b: 262-263; Ágh 1998b: 101). Similarly, the Bulgarian political scientist D. Kanev thought that the Bulgarian political life was showing traits typical of an arrangement that Sartori called ”polarised pluralism” (Kanev 1996: 180-181). Let us add, however, that in the case of Bulgaria it was a primitive, ”immature” form of polarised party arrangement which largely differed from Sartori’s model of polarised pluralism in a number of important aspects. One can hardly suppress the impression that comparing the post-communist Bulgarian party system with polarised pluralism might in a number of cases result from insufficient knowledge of Sartori’s typology and from a wrong understanding of the concept of polarised pluralism as such.
4) After all, only beginning with this period it made sense to speak about a delayed or delaying party and political differentiation in Bulgaria.
5) BSP was generally considered a very little ”reformed” party and not really a success in terms of ”social-democratic” transformation of a post-communist party which preserved its own potential mainly thanks to resistant organisation structures and systems of patronage. The assessment of SDS as a ”composed” comprehensive formation (whose structure and individual components were changing) was a more difficult task. SDS was not considered a model ”democratic” or ”democracy devoted” formation, at least not from 1997/98 on, also due to the repulsive nature of political activities of its radical anti-communist ”dark-blue” stream which gained prevalence in the first half of the 1990s. Interestingly enough, Attila Ágh (with respect to the period round 1994) considered SDS a clearly nationalist-traditionalist party and was very sceptical about the democratisation process in Bulgaria: “This was a typical Balkan blind alley of development when both large parties as contenders for power proved to be, in fact, successor parties of the former regime and were unable to reform themselves and their country.” (Ágh 1998b: 182-183).
6) The range of Bulgarian ”third parties” was naturally broader than the ”centrist” sphere and included also parties and factions which cannot be considered ”centrist” or centre-positioned in the proper sense of the word. However, leaving apart the ethnic party DPS (the Movement for Rights and Freedoms), which in some cases also displayed centrist orientation, the most important “third parties” basically fell in the category of ”centrist” formations.
7) The extreme diversity of parties trying to embody the ”third force” in the Bulgarian party system was pointed to by A. Todorov who – apart from ephemeral formations – identified six ”permanent and relatively stable political families” of ”third parties” represented by the DPS, agrarian parties (various factions of the Bulgarian Agrarian People’s Union, BZNS), social democrats (represented by the ”historical” social democracy, e.g. the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party, BSDP; and the new formations, such as DAR or the Euroleft Coalition, the above category in fact including also left-centrist social-liberal parties), monarchists, populist (the Bulgarian Business Bloc, BBB) and (neo)communists. Occasionally also the Greens were included (cf. Todorov 1997).
8) The Bulgarian Socialist Party dominated an electoral alliance of its own, with the Political Club Ekoglasnost and one of the factions of the Bulgarian Agrarian People’s Union as its junior partners.
9) The ODS got 52,2% of votes and 137 mandates (out of the total of 240), the Democratic Left obtained 22,1% of votes and 58 mandates, the ONS 7,6% of votes and 19 mandates, the Euroleft 5,5% of votes and 14 mandates, the BBB 4,9% of votes and 12 mandates. Cf. Bulgaria - Last Elections. Parline Database ( (cf. also Shopov 1999: 200-202).
10) As pointed out by the Bulgarian scholar Georgi Karasimeonov (during the seminar “International Influences on Democratization in East Central Europe”, Prague, 17-3-2000), the generation exchange that took place within the SDS elite was a necessary prerequisite for SDS transformation or, in other words, made way for its change from a heterogeneous anti-communist coalition to a comprehensive right centre party.
11) The SDS (which made an effort to profile itself as a catch-all Christian-democratic party) found its allies in the DP and in two factions of the BZNS, as well as in the small anticommunist faction of the BSDP and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) (cf. Todorov 1997). Except for the VMRO, all these parties can be considered centrist formations. The VMRO (re-named as the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization - Bulgarian National Movement, VMRO-BND) profiled itself as a nationalist conservative ”new right”.
12) Such conclusion can only hardly be doubted – even though a certain amount of caution is necessary in conceiving of the ”centre” which simply cannot be defined in exclusively negative terms, as a party and political space ”in between” the major poles or as a range of party and political formations belonging nor to the SDS, nor to the BSP. This would mean defining it primarily – and in the worse case exclusively – as a residual (and therefore inherently non-homogeneous) space or a domain of moderate forces. The problematic interpretation of the potential and role of the Bulgarian party and political ”centre” resides in the fact that different analyses and commentaries have mixed the different aspects of ”centre-positioning” and ”centrist character” of individual political forces, which resulted in misunderstandings that could have been avoided.
13) Neither the SDS, nor the BSP represent a genuine catch-all centrist party capable of controlling effectively and “directly” the centre space of electoral arena.

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