The Illusion of Equality Before the Law
The almost complete absence of ideological clashes in Bulgaria’s party landscape partly owes to the broad political consensus, emerging after the fall of socialism in the 1990s, that the state’s responsibility is to ensure equality before the law, fight corruption, and little else. This consensus has led to official politics ignoring the country’s extreme social inequality. According to recent data, the income of 30 percent of Bulgarian citizens is below the poverty threshold, while 70 percent in total cannot afford a decent standard of living. Distinctions between the Left and Right have thus grown increasingly irrelevant, while also allowing the parties of the Right to occasionally introduce social welfare measures as a bid for pensioner votes.
The BSP’s criticisms of attorney general Ivan Geshev, for example, focus on issues ranging from his selective prosecution of oligarchs (almost exclusively rivals to other companies close to the government), to his alleged unchecked powers and de facto immunity from state prosecution. Geshev claims that Bulgaria’s Criminal Code and Penal Procedure Code, which he derides as leftovers from socialism, set the bar too high in terms of the standards of proof they require. This hostility toward due process (according to Geshev, court proceedings under socialism were in fact an example of this) is a major point of contention with the opposition.
Another product of Bulgaria’s political consensus is the practically ubiquitous — but often deeply contradictory — use of anti-corruption rhetoric. At the recent parliamentary hearing, Geshev, himself often accused of corruption, presented what he termed the prosecution’s “impressive and unprecedented” results in fighting both “everyday crime” — a code word for what some imagine to be “Roma crimes,” such as small thefts and scams — as well as large-scale fraud involving EU funds. While Geshev boasts of the high number of corruption cases brought before the courts, BSP MP Filip Popov highlighted the vast number of (often minor) crimes the term entails, which allows the prosecution to exaggerate their efforts in the fight against it. The BSP even questioned the need for the Specialized Anti-Corruption Court — a signature achievement of GERB’s decade-long rule.
Apart from judicial independence and efficiency, opposition parties of all stripes often criticize GERB for its alleged “populism” when it sporadically responds to some social demands. These denunciations are the product of the opposition’s broader skepticism vis-à-vis the redistributive role of the state, along with its often neoliberal economic worldview. This fall the GERB-led government tried to alleviate social strife and growing public distrust by proposing what it claimed were “overdue” social reforms. Following a minor increase in minimum and maximum pensions back in July, minister of labor and social policy Denitsa Sacheva proposed another increase in the maximum pension, to be funded by a slight increase in contributions from high earners. Those unhappiest with the proposal were representatives of Da, Bulgaria, who dismissed GERB’s proposal as a “populist” measure that would hit high earners the hardest — despite the fact that they would benefit from an increased maximum pension later on.
Similarly, both right-wingers and the BSP criticized a recent government proposal to temporarily distribute child benefits to all families irrespective of income level — claiming the proposal’s “hidden agenda” was to indirectly buy votes in the upcoming election. Such criticism also suggests that social payments are themselves a form of corruption. The government in turn presented the measure as equal treatment of all families and children, though in so doing threaten to undermine the Bulgarian welfare state’s progressive character.
What all mainstream political actors — whether the supposed Left or Right — seem to ignore is that achieving social justice entails unequal rights. The apparent “equal right” to benefit payments disregards the uneven conditions Bulgarians with children face — that is, some need additional support. Even the Bulgarian constitution grants mothers special state protection such as paid leave, “free obstetrical care, and relaxed conditions of work.” Similarly, it grants special protection to children left without the care of the immediate family, to elderly people and people with disabilities. That justice often requires precisely unequal treatment is not exactly a controversial statement, except to those eager to pronounce the primacy of equality before the law only to justify their own socially regressive policies.