Today in Sofia, power is keeping the public both obedient and in an imposed apathy. This reality is not only a consequence of the distant past; after almost thirty years of transition and democratic stabilisation, a political model has been built that is incompatible with the basic principles of liberal democracy.
Its formal and structural features such as political pluralism, free choice and the development of a market economy have become the basis for political and economic oligarchism, where market mechanisms are a screen for informal dependencies. Elections are a fiction, and the elected positions themselves are sources of prosperity.
The characteristic feature of the new system is its elasticity which allows the system to function. Principles, positions, political views and laws are elastic concepts that, instead of defining the framework of acceptable social norms, are adapted to the reality on the ground. Informal dependencies and elasticity are the basis of Bulgaria’s political reality, which is in complete contradiction with the principles of liberal democracy.
The only real alternative is to repair the existing political reality. But not a repair of the institutional structure or electoral process, which politicians approach with great affinity, but it is the quality of political culture that needs to be repaired. Our attitudes towards ourselves, to society and above all to our politicians must be mended.
Currently, politicians are playing the role of lightning rods. They are perceived as ugly but inevitable elements of the political reality. The notion that they are the voice of public opinion has been replaced by the burden of party dependence.
What matters are not their promises to voters, but the place in the party list for the next election. It is of no surprise then that responsibility is being replaced by loyalty. At the same time, politicians are the mirror image of public attitudes. Unceremonious and limited in both their manners and their primitive perception of our surrounding world. But what are we missing, and how can we get out of the vicious circle of party dependence and the economic embezzlement of the state?
A complete answer to this question would require an analysis of both dimensions, the internal and external. However, for the purposes of this article, I need only focus on the former.
In an internal aspect, it is essential to identify the missing or missing wheels of the liberal political mechanism in our country. Some of them are well known. The triad that sabotages the rule of law consists of an instrumentalised judicial system, direct political control, and a comprehensive bureaucracy specializing in clerical harassment under the common denominator of corruption.
This cancer education is the most convenient formula for “kidnapping the state”. The judicial system creates a legal umbrella for the political elite, which, instead of governing within the law, governs the law. The disturbed division of power, which is the foundation of every rule of law, is a fiction hidden behind the nominal existence of post-communist institutional reforms that Attila Agh calls a Potemkin Democracy.
Other elements of the liberal political mechanism have never been introduced or are deliberately marginalised. An example is civil society, which plays the key role in liberal democracy of replacing the state’s comprehensive presence.
First, after Communism, the public did not understand what government’s role should be, perhaps because the idea of social activity had memories of the communist-led, Fatherland Front assemblies.
Second, the formal existence of non-governmental organizations is guaranteed and accompanied by direct financial dependence on the state; an absurdity which still does not hinder anyone. Instead of their independence, mobilisation and public benefit, non-governmental organizations are filling the space freed by the “omnipotent state”, but they do have to que for state delegations. In doing so, they not only do not act as aggregators of public interest but also become sub-contractors of government procurement.
Third, most of these organisations preferred the easy way of obtaining foreign financing and embracing external priorities instead of knowingly recognizing the needs of their own society.
Fourth, it quickly became clear that the dependence of NGOs on the state creates an excellent opportunity for draining state resources. The complexity of these causes led to the compromise of NGOs as gadgets of power or conductors of foreign interests. An argument that politicians happily exploit not only in Bulgaria. In this way, civil society does not play its role in liberal democracy as a dominant factor, corrective and navigator of power.
An important role is played by the awareness of civil responsibility. This question requires a separate analysis, but it should be emphasised that an atomized and socially-apathetic group is not the formula on which a functioning liberal democracy can be built.
Short-term public mobilisations around particular causes are needed but are, in themselves, insufficient for the creation of a strong civil society. What is missing is the sense of “we”, of the common good in which there is room for success and failure, which is based on mutual respect and self-control regardless of the possibilities. Self-control cannot derive from public discontent, but it should have its own source in the consciousness of the common good.
Also, self-control must be directly related to one of the aspects of the rule of law, in which the law is the same for all.
The elite vs the public
Another issue of political responsibility is the prevailing political apathy. The dominant model of social division between “we mere mortals” and “elected” is above all demobilising. Identifying with a group creates moral superiority and emotional support, but it also leaves the political agora in the hands of people who do not feel burdened by moral or social norms.
In the absence of any formal and informal control mechanisms, the role of policy changes. Instead of being a temporary service in the name of the common good, it becomes a source of privileged position, a wellspring of prosperity and an imperative of loyalty to power. If we just succumb to the situation, qualifying our stance with the statements like “this is just how politicians are ” or that “it’s always been like this”, we not only transferring the guilt but also justifying a conscious self-isolation of the public. This self-isolation is detrimental to the quality of the political system.
Taking steps in the dimensions presented here is not the long-awaited panacea that will save liberal democracy with a magic stick, but recognising their position and use will create new tools to influence the power that should be for the people, not for its politicians.
Spasimir Domaradzki is a professor of Political Science and International Relations at Lazarski University in Warsaw, Poland.