During the transition towards liberal democracy and a market economy, some countries from the former Eastern Bloc managed to successfully mimic the model that had already been proven to be successful in the West – a multiparty democratic system, combined with mostly free market capitalism.
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Some, however, were less successful – especially in the democracy department – and several decades later ended up with a form of a façade democracy, which in reality conceals a type of oligarchic rule that shares little of the characteristics of a genuine liberal democracy.
Political science has dubbed this concept electoral authoritarianism, and it is present to a degree in a number of post-Soviet countries. A quite telling thing of its presence is the de-ideologization of real politics, while maintaining an outside stance – usually a populist and nationalist one – accompanied by the consolidation of the party system and marginalization of the opposition.
Such a phenomenon occurred also in Bulgaria, which is why it is worth examining the development of the Bulgarian party system and government ideological lean through the lens of the concept of electoral authoritarianism and tracing how far towards the establishment of this model of government Bulgaria has gone in the past three decades.
Electoral Authoritarianism: What Is That?
Before we proceed to the specifics of the Bulgarian case, it is necessary to define the concept of electoral authoritarianism, as it is the starting point of this evaluation of the development of electoral politics in the country.
A very popular definition comes from Bogaards (2009), whose work focuses particularly on the transformation of the countries from the third wave of democratization into hybrid regimes, and the failure of some of them to develop fully functional democratic institutions1. While those types of definitions often also include assessments on the quality of markets and economic competition in the studied countries, here we focus primarily on the political side of the matter.
Contrary to the cold-war clear-cut distinction between democracies and dictatorial regimes, Bogaards points out that in the wave of transition after the 1990s, many countries now exist in a “gray area” between the two.
These typically have façade democratic institutions modelled after the fully functional Western democracies, particularly when it comes to holding elections, but in practice have entrenched political elites that capture all the institutions and political power that are pitted against puppet opposition as well as compromised civil liberties.
Moreover, Bogaards points out that there are quite a few terms coined for this type of regime – “semi-authoritarianism”, “illiberal democracy”, “liberalized autocracy” to name just a few, each with its own specifics and differences. In short, he provides a spectrum, from functioning democracy to full-blown totalitarianism, with electoral authoritarianism in the middle of it.
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1 Bogaards, M. (2009) “How to Classify Hybrid Regimes? Defective Democracy and Electoral Authoritarianism”, [in]: Democratization, Vol. 16(2), pp. 399-423.