If the municipal elections are taken as a massively expensive and elaborate public opinion poll, a number of conclusions may be extrapolated.
First, voter turnout remained a low, a trend established some years ago, and confirmed in the 2003 municipal elections, 2005 parliamentary elections, 2005 special mayoral elections, 2006 presidential elections and Bulgaria’s European Parliament elections earlier this year. This trend has been ascribed to many things, of which the factors that stand out are fatigue with the politics of transition, disillusionment with the cavalier attitude that Bulgaria’s political elite displays towards ordinary people, and the public perception that whoever is nominally in power, the country is controlled from behind the scenes by powerful business interests.
Second, and linked to the above, it is notable that none of the parties associated with the first decade or so after the fall of communism did especially well, even though the performance of Martin Zaimov in Sofia has been read as evidence that the seemingly long-spent impetus of what used to be the Union of Democratic Forces could again be revived, if only the right-wing could learn to put aside their petty personal squabbles. In 2007 Bulgaria, the parties that stabilised post-1997 Bulgaria and put it on the road to macro-economic stability and European Union membership were shown scant respect by voters.
Third, and not insignificantly, the spectre of ultra-nationalism that stalked the land in the form of Ataka, and produced an apparent upward growth curve in the 2005 parliamentary and 2006 presidential elections, appears to be fading. In only one city of any significance did Ataka reach the second round, even though it should be noted that some of its voter base may have transferred their allegiance to strongman Boiko Borissov, even though few of his messages are the same as those of Ataka – in fact, all he has in common with them is a contempt for the current governing tripartite coalition.
Further, two worrying trends persist and may even have worsened in the conduct of elections. The first is the risks associated with ethnic mobilisation. As Ataka conjured up one form of this evil, so again we have seen voters brought in by the busload in an obvious mobilisation on ethnic lines. Also disturbing were the widespread allegations of the purchasing of votes, not only a sad spectacle that people cared so little for their democratic rights that they were prepared to part with them for cash, but also that there was a candidate who saw nothing wrong in handing out money and other financial incentives to recruit support. It is to be hoped that Bulgaria, as an EU member and as a state not of the kind where international monitoring should be required to ensure a free and fair election, cracks down effectively on such abuses.
Finally, it is important to consider the meaning of the three parties that did the best. As noted above, one mobilised – as it has long since done – its electorate on ethnic and religious lines. Of the other two, one long-established and the other a recent phenomenon (at least as a formal political party), both have track records of making promises that, for one reason or another, have not been kept. In time, and now that we are one step closer to the 2009 parliamentary and European Parliament elections, their current support may be eroded by further disillusionment, and by the start of the next decade of the 21st century, a further reshaping of the political landscape may prove inevitable. All that may be extrapolated with certainty is that the medium-term future holds further changes.