Bulgaria's Different Pathway

BULGARIA stands alone as the only East bloc nation to give the communists a plurality of the vote in an open, multiparty election. On June 10, Bulgarians went to the polls for the first free elections since 1931 and gave the Communist (renamed Socialist) Party a majority of seats in the parliament. The Communist Party won solid victories in almost every part of the country except Sofia, Bulgaria's capital. Why did the Bulgarians fail to reject the communists as had the people of Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia? Many in the Bulgarian opposition party explain the communist success by declaring the elections a fraud. To be sure, intimidation and fraud were widespread - especially in rural areas. I met with opposition leaders in small towns who said communist supporters threatened to hang them and burn down their homes. I heard numerous reports of vote-buying. I saw some evidence that the communists used intimidation and coercion against peasants and gypsies. Those manipulations added to the victory margin.

But I believe it's a mistake to say the elections were a fraud. Opposition parties were permitted to organize and run an aggressive Western-style campaign. Opposition newspapers were sold in major cities. Various parties had access to TV and radio. Opposition party demonstrations were conducted without overt government obstruction. Three days before the election, the opposition held an enormous rally in Sofia with a half million people in attendance. The day after the election, I saw thousands of angry opposition supporters marching through the center of Sofia, unmolested by police as they declared the election a fraud. On election day, I visited an army base in a rural area 200 miles from Sofia. Both communist and opposition party posters had equal prominence at a soldiers' barrack. The vote counting process, performed after the balloting was completed, was done in a fair and professional manner.

The Socialists showed that they have broader public support than in any other East bloc country. Reasons are varied. First, unlike most of her neighbors, Bulgaria has little experience with democracy. Except for a ten-year period between the two world wars, Bulgaria has been controlled by autocratic rulers and foreign governments. For a 500-year period until 1878, Bulgaria was occupied by the Ottomans. In this century, she has been dominated alternatively by Germany and Russia. A nation schooled in autocratic rule is less resistant to communist controls and more reluctant to embrace the perceived chaos of democratic rule.

Second, the communists have deep roots in the country and are popular, especially in rural areas. The Bulgarian Party is one of Europe's oldest communist parties. Moreover, per capita, it is one of Europe's largest, claiming one out of every five Bulgarian adults. Many Bulgarians credit the Communist Party with the marked rise in their standard of living since 1944 when the communists took power. Unlike Poland, East Germany, or Czechoslovakia, the Bulgarian Party didn't experience mass resignations.

Third, unlike the rest of Eastern Europe, hostility to communism is not tied to resentment against the Soviet Union. The Russians are popular among Bulgarians because they liberated them in 1878 from 500 years of Ottoman control. Moreover, the Russians are seen as fellow Slavs. By contrast, Russians are much disliked in the rest of Eastern Europe as occupiers and invaders.

Fourth, Bulgarians, especially in rural areas, are conservative. They worry about fast change. Some of these concerns were the result of a communist smear campaign alleging that, if elected, the opposition would throw people out of their homes and eliminate social security benefits. At the same time, the opposition contributed to this fear by supporting a policy to return the land to the wealthy landowners. Peasants' conservatism is partly a result of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which, unlike the Polish or Hungarian churches, has always been close to the government - not an independent voice.

Another reason for the Socialist success was an opposition party divided, lacking charismatic leadership, and without a real platform. The Bulgarian opposition is in infancy; Bulgaria never had a strong dissident movement.

By contrast, communists ran a strong, well-organized campaign. On November 10, 1989, current president Peter Mladenev and defense minister Dobri Dzhurov, participated in the coup which threw out Todor Zhivkov. The current leaders succeeded in converting the party's Stalinist image into a dynamic and positive one. Rather than holding the Party responsible for past abuses, many people are grateful to it for throwing Zhivkov out.

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