Bulgarian anger over living standards lifts nationalist party

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 19, 2013 11:55 AM
Bulgarian anger over living standards lifts nationalist party

By Tsvetelia Tsolova

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgarian nationalist party Attack is gaining support among voters with pledges to nationalize companies and raise wages while blaming foreigners for unsatisfying living standards, its leader told Reuters on Tuesday.

Attack party leader Volen Siderov blamed the "colonial" West for low wages and high prices in Bulgaria, which joined the European Union in 2007 and has committed to budget restrictions and a currency peg in an effort to swap its lev for the single European currency used by 17 other EU member nations.

"I want to underline the negative role of the West, which through all these years of colonizing was actually pushing things in that direction - low incomes, cheap labor because foreigners benefit from it," Siderov said in an interview.

Attack's growing popularity, now about 5 percent, is raising questions over the political future of the poorest EU member ahead of a May 12 election where grudging support for Bulgaria's main parties looks likely to end in a hung parliament.

Public anger at consumer prices charged by energy monopolies led to widespread protests last month over Bulgaria's low standard of living and forced the resignation of the center-right cabinet headed by Boiko Borisov.

"Protesters said: 'Let's get Bulgaria back, let's get our property back' and this is our slogan I have here on my badge," said the 57-year-old Siderov, whose party also has an anti-Roma and anti-Turkish agenda.

In a powerful demonstration of public despair over Bulgarian living standards which stand at less than half the EU average, a 59-year-old man set himself on fire in protest on Monday in the western town of Bobovdol. He was the fifth man to set himself on fire and remains in critical condition.

Bulgaria's two leading political parties, Borisov's GERB and the Socialists each have the support of about 20 percent of voters and there appear few likely combinations for a coalition after the election.

Both GERB and the fifth-largest party, the pro-business Bulgaria for the Citizens, have indicated they will not work with any other group and Attack's surge in popularity to five percent from one percent after the protests has complicated the picture.

The most likely coalition combination would be the Socialists and an ethnic Turkish party, but it is unlikely they could command a majority on their own.

While Siderov's party is unlikely to have a major say over policy, its rising popularity in the country of 7.3 million may alarm investors, given Bulgaria needs to keep a tight rein on fiscal policy to hang onto its euro zone aspirations.

Attack informally supported Borisov's government, but is now pushing an agenda which GERB cannot support.

"Siderov is not a welcome coalition partner, as fierce people easily forget their pledges," said Rumiana Kolarova, a political analyst at Sofia University. "The bigger support for him, the bigger the uncertainty."

Attack wants to nationalize energy distributors, raise taxes against the rich and revoke concessions for gold and water granted to foreign companies, which Siderov says boost profits by underpaying their Bulgarian staff.

Seeking to quell public anger, the energy regulator has cut power prices by 7 percent and has begun a process to revoke the license of Czech CEZ, which provides electricity to 1.7 million clients in western Bulgaria.

Other distributors include Czech Energo-Pro and Austria's EVN, which said on Tuesday it would take Bulgaria to court if it fails to reach an agreement over electricity costs.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)