Year of the virus

In 2021, the world, Europe and Bulgaria must cope with the pandemic or at least shed its current shackles

Without a shadow of a doubt, 2020 will be remembered around the world as the year of the coronavirus. Way back in February, we wrote that the word of the year would be “coronavirus”. Since there are dozens of human coronaviruses, let me clarify: I am talking about SARS-CoV-2, or the Chinese virus, as the outgoing US president refers to it unscientifically.

Since we began and are about to finish this year with this novel coronavirus top of mind, we are still awaiting the explanation for one circumstance that is conveniently forgotten.

One does not need to be a professional conspiracy theorist to ask oneself, “What caused the extremely aggressive response of the Chinese authorities to the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in late 2019 and early 2020?” One year on, the world is still trying to figure out the virus, where it came from, its new strains and how it will all end?

At the turn of 2020, the Chinese authorities were clearly aware of the monster that was sweeping through Wuhan, whose population is numbered in the millions. The question is how did they know? Let us complete the picture with some more information about the virus. Official data in China has the mortality rate per capita at a number 345 times lower than that in Bulgaria. You read that right, three hundred and forty-five times! It is an altogether different question as to how much the Chinese data should be trusted.

US elections

President Donald Trump, and the anti-globalist wave headed by him, became the biggest political victim of the novel coronavirus in 2020. Of course, he was also hit with a classic political maneuver that strongly resembles the one employed in 1960 (when John F. Kennedy was elected after a similar scheme), only 10 times its scale. But if Trump had approached the coronavirus crisis a bit more seriously, things would have probably turned out quite differently for him both on 3 November and in the months preceding the elections. Indeed, at the beginning of the year a Trump victory seemed almost a foregone conclusion

Despite everything that happened since then, in the end Trump still won over 74 million votes, which is the second highest vote total in US history. Trailing only that of Joe Biden, of course, who got 81 million votes on his way to winning the 2020 elections. This was the 59th presidential race held in the US in the past 232 years. It remains to be seen how the official transfer of power will go on 20 January 2021, though. Donald Trump has proven capable of all sorts of surprises.

These past US elections will also be remembered for recording the biggest share of mail voting in the country’s history. Alas, both in-person machine voting (which is the traditional means in the US) and mail voting should be considered a failure. And not because Trump’s claims of large-scale fraud in these voting methods are necessarily true. Whether and to what extent these alleged manipulations actually occurred is a question we will probably never know the answer to since the US courts dismissed the filed court cases and by law the US courts are the only competent authorities on the matter.

No, both in-person machine voting and mail voting were a failure in the US in 2020 because half of the Americans believe there really were manipulations. Democratic elections have power only if an overwhelming majority of the people believes in their integrity. That did not happen in the world’s second largest democracy (after India) this year. Will it happen in Bulgaria next year? Will the people believe that the proclaimed winner won fair and square? There is no way of knowing this in advance, but there is a high likelihood that that will not be the case. And then it will not matter much who is to blame. We will all suffer the consequences, innocent or not.

The protests

Whatever our analysis of them, the protests of the past summer and early autumn were among the most significant political events in Bulgaria. The leaders of the protesters had set two ambitious goals for themselves. The first was to topple the GERB cabinet led by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and force snap elections to be organised by a provisional government, which would have been the second such government during President Rumen Radev’s current term in office. If the cabinet had caved in and PM Borissov had resigned (as he has done twice before), that is exactly what would have transpired and now we would already have the 45th National Assembly in the history of Bulgaria with … (insert the name of your favourite candidate here) as premier.

The second goal of the protesters was to oust Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev. How exactly a prosecutor general is supposed to be ousted is something no one cared to explain to us. This remains a mystery to this day. Perhaps one bets on the targeted incumbent crumbling under pressure. However, the people appointed to that position are not selected to have weak mentality. The current prosecutor general certainly seems to have nerves of steel. 

After failing to achieve its two goals in a timely fashion (one of those was doomed at the inception, as we demonstrated), the protest wave disintegrated. It is worth mentioning that, as the head of a major Bulgarian hospital noted, some of the protesters seen setting facemasks on fire ultimately wound up as patients of that same hospital, having contracted the novel coronavirus they believed to be a hoax. God guide them through this challenge. Unfortunately, even God might not be able to knock some sense into them. Either way, the leadership of the protests – a so-called toxic trio, a former ombudsman and mediocre male and female politicians from the distant and not-so-distant past – splintered and started blaming each other for the failure. There is nothing new under the sun, as the Ecclesiastes, one of the books of wisdom literature in the Old Testament, teaches us.

Who won the protests, then? In a strictly political sense, we will learn the answer late on 28 March 2021, as long as the president stays true to the date he has set for the general elections. According to polls, the protests may benefit a political actor who did not take part in them, but was supportive of them. Just like back in the day there were people who condemned Solzhenitsyn without ever reading anything written by him. The experiences of the US, Italy and Ukraine (among others) have shown that political projects originating from the show business can be successful and even have longevity. Bulgaria has some experience of its own in that regard thanks to the emblematic figure of a late showman and a master of fencing who was elected to two parliaments.

The year 2020 also saw protests in Europe and the US, of a much larger variety than those in Bulgaria. The jury is still out on whether those managed to achieve anything of significance. Personally, I do not believe they did much of anything. However, they were still useful in so far as they kept those in power from behaving completely unchecked. Those events, as history teaches us, make victims out of both the guilty and the innocent. I attribute the failure of the 2020 protests in Bulgaria to reasons different than the fact that their leadership was incompetent and eventually fell apart.

When and how we will elect?

President has already said when we will elect: the Election Day will be on the first possible date according to the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria: Sunday, 28 March 2021. Because the elections should be conducted on a day off, and this day in Bulgaria is traditionally Sunday. The previous elections were on 26 March 2017, so on 26 March 2021, the 44th National Assembly would be dissolved with or without a presidential decree.

Exceptions are possible, for example, if a war breaks out or a spectacular natural disaster strikes us, God forbid. The last possible date is 23 May 2021 (the possible dates are total 9). If the elections are scheduled for this date, we will manage without a parliament for two months, just like in 2001. I can imagine what a roar and cry will occur when our alert and smart opposition becomes also aware of this elementary constitutional fact. 

For sure, the issue when we will elect the 45th National Assembly must be finally decided not by petty political scores, but by President in accordance with the epidemiological situation. Something more, the decision must be taken by 28 January at the latest. Until now, most political forces have criticised the announced date of 28 March for medical reasons. Also because of the fear that the small and especially new political entities will not be ready yet for elections that time. But these same small political entities should know that if the elections are later, then GERB will rule for some time without a parliament, as we have already said. And it may be nothing, but in the atmosphere of general mistrust and suspicion, this fact will lead many people to political hysteria.

Representatives of the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary political forces as well as of the Presidency, and election and medical experts should meet literally in the first days after the New Year. They urgently need to agree on the Election Day (if President agrees on another date) and on how the elections should be conducted in situation of an ongoing coronavirus crisis. The possibility of voting on two consecutive days - Saturday and Sunday, should be seriously considered, as other countries have already done it or think over of doing it. The foreign experience in this regard must be studied. Consideration should be given to disinfecting the voting machines and panels, bringing individual pens from home (or providing them from the section committees), voting of the quarantined voters and those staying in hospitals. 

Generally, if we cannot convince Bulgarians, especially the elderly people, that all the health measures have been taken, the turnout may be record low and the newly elected National Assembly may start with a very low level of confidence. The election activity can drop to about 30%, what it was recently in Romania.

In connection with the coronavirus pandemic, remote voting is again actively discussed, by mail and on the Internet. I have some small remarks here. Firstly, we should learn from the US. Secondly, something that works in Europe (postal voting in the Scandinavian countries and Austria) can have strange effects in Bulgaria. Such as violating the voting secrecy and the voters’ free expression of will. Thirdly, voting online also means hacking online. The online hacking is child's play to the hackers who can play even with Pentagon computers.

It would be a pity if our politicians were quarrelled on all these hot issues, where there is no any private political interest and they do not take the necessary measures. But I wouldn't be too surprised if that happens exactly in this way.

And who will be elected?

The past 2020 will predetermine what will be the economic and political year 2021. How many parties will enter the 45th National Assembly? Who will be the first, who will be second and third? Will the first political force (it emerges to be GERB, but it may also be BSP) be able to form a cabinet? We remember that elections of 12 May 2013 were won by GERB, but the party failed to form a cabinet and then the government of Mr Oresharski came, nominated by BSP and MRF and supported by the golden finger of Ataka party. Is it possible something similar to happen again? It is clear that a cabinet will be formed, but how long will such a cabinet last? I, personally, think that next year there will be elections only twice, as required by law. Nevertheless, Israel has held four elections in two years, and they are the most intelligent nation.

Presently, there is no party in Bulgaria without a serious problem. It is not clear what electoral damage GERB has suffered and will continue to suffer until the Election Day. BSP faces serious organisational crisis and it is not clear how it will mobilise its voters, especially the elderly people, in situation of coronavirus crisis. For MRF it is important whether and to what extent it will be able to regain its 100,000 votes, which were lost four years ago, going to Mr Mestan that time. For the new parties, it is not clear at all, to what extent the support, which is declared by their voters in the public opinion polls, will turn into real votes.

It is also important what will happen in the presidential elections on 7 November 2021. Will the current president be a candidate and will BSP support him? Will the current prime minister be a candidate? Contrary to the broad public opinion, the Bulgarian President’s role is far from being just ceremonial. Firstly, by his decrees people are being appointed to key positions in the state power and, most importantly, in strong-arm structures. Subsequently, these appointments are, in any case, coordinated with the president. Moreover, some of them are directly presidential proposals, which is a part of the behind-the-scenes trade in power. Surely, within the limits of the law.

Secondly, in critical moments such as the strong political crisis of 1997, when we faced a civil war, President’s role can be crucial. Mr Petar Stoyanov was a President then and he coped perfectly well. However, will it always be like this? There is a third thing. In fact, the President is the head of the State Agency for National Security, which, among other things, knows many of the personal secrets of the rulers. If the agency knows these secrets, so should its head. These secrets sometimes help to explain the supposedly strange behaviour of some Bulgarian politicians and public figures.

In 2021, the world, Europe and Bulgaria must cope with the pandemic, or at least shed its current shackles. At this moment, when I am writing this text (on 27 December), Bulgaria ranks 12th in terms of mortality per capita in the world. However, at the beginning of the pandemic we rank higher - 60 and more. Why did we go 50 points up in this sad ranking? There is no way to go back in history and see what would have happened if we had behaved in the autumn and summer of this year if not much smarter, then at least not so stupidly.

However, it is like that, everything is paid for in this world. It is not true, however, that the cheapest thing is the cheese in a mousetrap. It is the most expensive thing because the mice pay for it with their lives. The Native Americans say that the best-tailored dreams of mice and humans often do not come true. Unrealised dream of any nation is to survive in time. So far, we, Bulgarians, have succeeded with this dream of ours. If we are united, we can succeed also in the future.

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