Parties on the right and left-wing in Bulgaria benefit from voters' concerns about the impact of the financial crisis. There is also a growing acceptance of xenophobic views ahead of elections in May.
Both right and left-wing parties in Bulgaria are benefitting from voters' concerns about the impact of the financial crisis ahead of parliamentary elections on May 12.
Thousands of Bulgarians took to the streets for weeks at the beginning of this year. The demonstrators, who belonged to no particular party, protested against the effects of the financial crisis, rising electricity prices and growing unemployment.
Activists in several cities waved the country's flag and sang battle songs from the 19th century, from the time of the so-called "liberation from the Turkish yoke" after nearly 500 years of Ottoman rule.
Noticeable nationalist sentiment
Two people killed themselves by self-immolation. On February 20, Prime Minster Boyko Borissov responded by resigning and setting new elections for May 12. But the nationalist sentiment is still noticeable and is influencing the election campaign.
Hardly anyone in Bulgaria today thinks much about the old Ottoman Empire. The demonstrators are more concerned with another "foreign power" - the one made up of big international energy companies and food chains that Bulgarians blame for the high cost of living.
Culture expert Alexander Kiossev said the protests have clearly led to an escalation of xenophobia.
"Such uprisings of despair always try to find the guilty one among the so-called strangers," he said. "Not only foreign investors but also Turks and the Roma are frequent targets of aggression, which is even more dangerous with the presence of football hooligans and criminals."
When Bulgarians speak of "the Turks," they refer to the Turkish-speaking Muslim minority that accounts for 8 percent of the country's population. The Roma community is estimated to be roughly the same size. For populist parties such as the "Ataka" alliance, which is represented in both Bulgaria and the European Parliament, both groups are the enemy. For years, Ataka has been able to score points with its protests against new mosques and Turkish lessons in schools as well as its claims that the Roma population lives at the expense of "true Bulgarians" by exploiting the social system.
Sociologist Andrey Raytchev said he sees a new trend emerging in Bulgaria that acceptance of extremist views has grown but is not leading to a jump in xenophobia or racism.
"Ataka is presently on an upswing but radicalization is moving less toward xenophobia," he said. "It is the calls for an 'expropriation of foreign capitalists' that sound so attractive to a number of Bulgarians."
Raytchev and other observers have noticed a general radicalization on both the right and left-fringes of society. The violent soccer hooligans who are openly homophobic and often attack homosexuals, the radical nationalists who still dream of Great Bulgaria and the general group of right-wing people who hate the Roma and Turks suddenly found themselves on the street protesting together with ultra-left and nostalgic communists. Many of the smaller parties are hunting for votes in these groups ahead of the May 12 elections
Xenophobia, homophobia, racial resentment
Sometimes the parties demand that the nation's wealth be returned to the people or they sometimes promise to clean up Roma ghettos and to require the long-term unemployed - and by that they mean the Roma - engage in forced labor. These, according to the political scientist Parvan Simeonov, may be populist slogans but they sound plausible and politically consistent for a noticeable group of marginalized voters.
His colleague Ognian Mintchev said a single-digit percentage of Bulgarians has been vulnerable to xenophobia, homophobia and racial resentment. While the street demonstrations have not contributed to the growth of this group, they have led to a radicalization.
"Some populist politicians who have called out for these protests are not in a position to receive serious political support in the election," Mintchev said.
That is exactly what the election in May is all about: Which parties will win over the 15 to 20 percent of the voters who have actively supported the street protests? The two major parties, Prime Minister Borissov's right-wing GERB and the socialist BSP, have so far avoided any comments on the populist slogans and promises of the protest leaders.