Discontent with political systems has proliferated in the past decade, with established political actors facing increasing challenges from populist actors. The election of Donald Trump in the United States, the decision of the UK to leave the EU and the emergence of political outsiders globally clearly demonstrate the potential for anti-establishment movements to challenge conventional wisdom. Protest actions can be seen as a key measure of this discontent and challenge, forcing governments in democratic and non-democratic political systems to cope with claims from below. Large-scale protests have even taken place in countries and regions where the populations were deemed, rightly or wrongly, relatively quiescent.
Uncertainties introduced by the global financial crisis that began in 2008 challenged apparent progress towards democracy and good governance in Eastern Europe. Countries across the region saw protests challenge the state and more recently led to a form of populist backlash and as assertion of national sovereignty. In this context, Bulgaria has seen a significant degree of upheaval, as its weakly institutionalised political system has struggled to manage and address frustrations from the population. Following the dismantling of the communist regime in 1989, Bulgaria attempted to move towards a form of democratic governance. Aside from the outbursts that brought down the government in 1996, the apparent level of public discontent remained low, even in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
This pattern of apparent quiescence was challenged by the eruption of protests in 2012 over energy prices that signalled the beginning of a wave of protest. While actions were initially focused on particularistic concerns they soon escalated into a large-scale, sustained nationwide campaign that questioned the legitimacy of the regime. Faced with opposition on this scale the incumbent Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) government was forced to resign in February 2013. In spite of the resignation and change of government the protests evolved to address new claims and subsequently intensified over the summer, challenging the newly elected BSP government. The scale and sustained nature of the protests was unprecedented, thereby requiring a closer examination of pattern of protest.
Drawing on a protest event catalogue compiled from stories reported by the Bulgarian News Agency, it is possible to get some sense of what issues drove the protests and how they manifested. Figure 1 presents the issue areas that were advanced in protests over the 2010-15 period. It shows that 2013 was unique in the scale of protest during this period, but that it was not unprecedented, as 2010-11 saw heightened levels of protest activity. While the government was brought down in February 2013, the range of issues was quite diverse, with issues of governance featuring in a minor fashion. Over the rest of 2013 issues of governance came to dominate the protests, as the resignation of the government appeared to open the space to contest governance effectiveness. Outside of this period the range of protests was far more diverse, with economic concerns featuring as a consistent issue of concern in terms of employment.
Figure 1 – Protest Issues (2010-2015)
Turning to the types of actions adopted during the protests, the level of diversity is reduced. However, it is possible to see a change during the peak period of protest. Figure 2 shows the broad category of protest actions with up to four recorded for each event. Demonstrational actions (such as display, march, costume) make up the majority of all actions, as the protest seeks to demonstrate an area of injustice or concern. Levels of events involving appeals (address, present) or violence (attack, damage) are lower, as the likely effects may be limited in the case of the former or the costs associated may dissuade particular actions. Of interest in the figure is the increased level of confrontational (such as obstruct, enter, disrupt) actions during the period of peak intensity. This can be linked to the sustained character of the protests as participants interacted more frequently with actors seeking to maintain order (in particular the police).
Figure 2 – Forms of Protest (2010-2015)
The 2013 protests clearly represent a cycle of contention whereby protest ‘peaks with new interpretive frames, tactical innovation, and diffusion to new groups’ before declining ‘through a mixture of institutionalization, government reform, state repression, and/or participant exhaustion.’ The claims presented evolved over time, moving from disputes over electricity prices to quality of governance and subsequently to more fragmented claims regarding a range of government practices. Protest events prior to the peak were characterised by heavy involvement of identifiable non-government organisations, such as trade unions. As the level of contention declined, grassroots mobilisations played a more prominent role, suggesting the possibility of some ongoing legacy from the protests. This also occurred in an environment where the issues were more diffuse, suggesting that there had been an activation of new participants. The spontaneous nature of the protests raised questions about their ability to address the underlying concerns that initially sparked action. The pattern of protest events during the waning period of the cycle suggests that there has been a return to previous patterns.
The pattern of protest in Bulgaria over the 2010-15 period demonstrates the diversity of issues involved and forms of contention. The scale of the 2013 protests presented a significant challenge to the political system, even if the lasting effect appears to have been more limited. Perhaps more significant are the effects on civil society organising, as grassroots mobilisations and diffusion of issues suggest the activation of new participants. Cycles of protest fluctuate over time, fading as issues are settled or fatigue sets in, but they also have the potential to alter the landscape. The question in this case is how the legacy of the 2013 protests will shape future developments.