Turkey and the 2013 Bulgarian elections

The results of the Bulgarian national elections held on May 12 have exposed how a short-sighted and definitely ill-advised policy of sponsoring a newly established ethnic Turkish party in the Bulgarian political landscape by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Turkey wasted some 50,000 votes cast by Bulgarian citizens of Turkish origin.

There have been complaints and legitimate concerns among Turks in Bulgaria and in the diaspora about Bulgaria’s ethnic Turkish party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which has represented the Turkish minority, among others, in Bulgaria for more than 20 years. Whether or not the party has indeed represented the best interests of its constituency in those years is debatable. Nevertheless, that does not fully justify the change of heart in Ankara towards the MRF and certainly does not explain why the AK Party government informally signaled its opposition to the MRF.

Throwing its weight behind a splinter faction called the People’s Party for Freedom and Dignity (FDPP), which was established in December of last year under the leadership of Kasım Dal and Korman İsmailov on the eve of the general elections, Ankara played into the wrong hands. Although diversity and pluralism among ethnic Turks is something that should be expected and supported, it does not have to reach to a point at which the interests of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria are put in jeopardy. The AK Party government was hoping to see the FDPP reach the 4 percent national threshold in the elections, becoming a serious contender for the votes of Turks in Bulgaria against the MRF. That strategy totally collapsed, however. It was difficult to understand why there was another such attempt when in fact there had already been three other political movements by ethnic Turks to challenge the MRF that all failed to gain enough traction to be a successful alternative.

According to the results of the election, the MRF received 11.3 percent of the vote (some 400,000 votes), becoming the third-largest party in Bulgaria. It now has 36 seats in the 240-member Bulgarian Assembly. On the other hand, the FDPP, despite having forged an alliance with the liberal National Movement for Stability and Progress (NDSV), received 1.63 percent of vote cast in the election (some 50,000 votes). Both failed to pass the national threshold and, as such, received no seats in the parliament. Since the NDSV got 3.01 percent of votes in the parliamentary elections of 2009, it is difficult to calculate exactly how many of the votes actually went to the FDPP. Considering that the NDSV has been on a declining curve in every election, and Turkish officials reportedly lobbied on behalf of the FDPP, especially among the diaspora living in Turkey, it would not be wrong to think that most of the votes the alliance received came from ethnic Turks.

The split, however, deprived Turks of at least two parliamentary seats, possibly more, which would otherwise have made the MRF a serious partner in a coalitional government with the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which came in second with 26.6 percent of the vote (corresponding to 84 seats). The center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), which came in first with 30.5 percent of the vote, declared on Thursday that it had failed to form a coalition government after refusals from both the BSP and the MRF. Now it looks very likely that both the BSP and its traditional ally, the MRF, will form a technocratic government, but their combined power is one seat short of the required majority in the Assembly. If the votes of ethnic Turks had not been divided between the MRF and a new party, the MRF could very well have won a couple more seats. Now, they need the support of at least one deputy from the GERB or from the ultranationalist National Union Attack party, the MRF’s arch-foe that won 7.3 percent of the votes. The technocratic government proposed by the socialists and headed by Plamen Oresharski, a former finance minister, will likely secure a vote of confidence in the Assembly as early as next week.

The new government has to deal with a number of urgent issues in the economy, from high unemployment to rampant corruption. Voter disenchantment with the elections because of rampant corruption and never-ending scandals in the Bulgarian government resulted in a voter turnout that was just 53 percent, the lowest for any parliamentary election since the fall of communism in 1989. The same disenfranchisement was also reflected among ethnic Turks. More than 100,000 Bulgarian citizens who also hold Turkish citizenship are eligible to vote at 86 poling centers set up in Turkey, but only some 60,000 went to the polls. Despite the government’s informal advocacy for the newly established FDPP, the rival MRF received 52,000 votes, while the FDPP got only 8,000 votes.

Turkish-Bulgarian Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Group Chairman and AK Party Bursa deputy Mustafa Öztürk was critical of the MRF, saying that it has not produced a policy that can meet the needs of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria or taken any steps to improve official or public relations between Turkey and Bulgaria. “I hope the establishment of another party will make a positive contribution in this respect,” he said before the elections. The official results, however, tell a different story than what Öztürk hoped to see. The widely held belief that the AK Party preferred the FDDP to the MRF created resentment among the Turks of Bulgaria and angered the community of Bulgarian immigrants in Turkey, thus, they overwhelmingly voted for the MRF.

The Turks in Bulgaria, who represent some 10 percent of the Bulgarian population of 8 million, have come a long way since their oppression under communist rule. They were subjected to forced ethnic assimilation in the mid-1980s under the dictatorship of Todor Zhivkov, prompting mass immigration to Turkey. They have a huge stake in presenting a strong, united front in cooling the anti-Turkish sentiment in Bulgaria that may be inflamed again amid dire economic conditions in the country. This may strain otherwise good relations between Turkey and Bulgaria. Turkey and Bulgaria started a high-level strategic cooperation council in 2011 to develop bilateral ties. Yet there are some unresolved issues between the two countries on the Black Sea, on interference of radio/TV frequencies across the border, on how best to regulate the flow of rivers on the border that often flood low-lying areas, crippling agricultural production, blocking major transit routes between Turkey and Bulgaria, and on property issues.

Keeping the ultra-nationalists in check is one of the main concerns on the Turkish side because when the Attack party was in the coalition government in 2010, a cabinet member even threatened that Bulgaria would block Turkey’s EU candidacy if it did not pay nearly $20 billion in property compensation dating back to the Second Balkan War in 1913. The Bulgarian government at the time dismissed that claim. However, the Attack is also known to be an advocate of cuts to public spending for minorities so as to encourage them to leave the country. It supports adopting a law abolishing dual citizenship to deprive ethnically Turkish Bulgarian citizens of their votes.

The Turkish government should mend fences with the MRF, which remains a key player in Bulgarian politics, and build on a common link to invest in the future of the EU’s poorest member state. The Bulgarian economy needs to be bolstered with trade, business and investment from Turkey. The country is a key link in Turkey’s trade route, and any instability in its neighbor will have a spillover impact on Turkey in terms of politics and economics.

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