Nationalists cash in on Bulgarians' unhappiness
SOFIA (Reuters) - A Bulgarian nationalist party which has protested against the Roma minority and wants to nationalize foreign-owned firms has emerged as a kingmaker from an election on Sunday by tapping into voters' disillusionment with mainstream politicians.
Volen Siderov, leader of Attack, stepped up rhetoric and populist pledges to improve the lives of poor Bulgarians after the previous government resigned in February in the face of demonstrations and self-immolations.
His success is part of a broader upswing of nationalists in central and eastern Europe's moribund economies such as Hungary's Jobbik, which has a similar agenda, vilifying Roma and opposing the European Union and other foreign influences.
Some party members wear shirts with swastikas and make Nazi salutes at rallies.
"The situation is dramatic, now it comes to the survival of our country and I believe that only Attack can save it," said student Milen Angelov. "These are the responsible politicians, the rest are traitors and servants of foreign interests."
At the start of the year, Attack had only 1 percent support but has the balance of power after a divisive election.
Former journalist Siderov, 57, canceled rallies to spend the money on helping the poor and partial results show Attack won 7.4 percent of the vote after attracting Bulgarians unhappy with the low living standards and widespread corruption.
As protesters failed to unite as a single political force, the stern, white-haired Siderov appealed to voters unhappy with an elite they view as entrenched and doing little to improve the lot of people in the EU's poorest country.
The center-right GERB - which stepped down at the height of February's protests - has kept tight fiscal policy and debt low. It will be the biggest party in parliament but is struggling to form a government due to its tarnished image.
Siderov has alarmed investors with his forthright style and pledges of nationalizations and revoking foreign companies' concessions. He has previously given unofficial backing to GERB, which did not adopt Attack policies.
Though GERB may be able to reach a majority with its support, Siderov immediately ruled out such a deal - which some analysts said may be a negotiating position.
The Socialists, running a close second to GERB, will also struggle to put together a working majority without some support from Attack and that may be difficult given their traditional alliance with the ethnic Turkish MRF. If no government can be formed, new elections will be held, possibly in September.
"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 told Reuters in March.
REVERSAL OF FORTUNES
Attack made a breakthrough when Siderov won 21 percent to come second in a 2006 presidential poll but its fortunes had since faded.
It wants to destroy Roma ghettoes, many of which have no running water or electricity, and force them to attend schools and seek jobs.
It organized anti-Roma demonstrations in 2011 after villagers blamed a Roma leader for the death of a 19-year-old and provoked nationwide unrest and the burning of some houses.
Roma is a term for groups who have migrated across Europe for centuries and are now the biggest ethnic minority in the EU, most of them from countries like Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. There are an estimated 10 million across Europe.
Attack also wants to stop the building of mosques, which is a sensitive topic in a country where some 15 percent of the population are Muslim.
"It's inconceivable that the big European political blocks could accept Attack being a formal part of a government," an EU diplomat said.
Siderov wound down his usual demagogic style and canceled rallies during the campaign, saying the party was instead using the money to help society's poorest pay bills and buy medicines.
Attack also wants to nationalize energy distributors - Czech companies CEZ and Energo-Pro and Austria's EVN, raise taxes for the rich and revoke concessions for gold and water granted to foreign companies. Siderov says they boost profits by underpaying their Bulgarian staff.
"I will make a coalition under the program 'Siderov's Plan Against the Colonial Yoke,'" he said on Sunday.
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)