On 21 November 2021, Bulgarian citizens took to the polls for the fourth time this year. Seeing that no party was able to form a government after the parliamentary elections on 4 April, the second elections were held on 11 July. Not surprisingly, the parties once again failed to form a government, causing Bulgarians to return to the ballot box on 14 November for both parliamentary and presidential elections. Following these most recent elections, Bulgaria’s political parties are still jostling to form a government under President Rumen Radev, who was reelected after run-offs on 21 November. Bulgaria’s seemingly endless – and still inconclusive – parliamentary polls have drawn the attention of observers, as has the high turnout rate for the 14 November elections among Bulgarian citizens in Turkey.
In April and July, respectively 22,000 and 28,000 Bulgarian citizens voted in the Bulgarian elections in Turkey, but on 14 November approximately 82,000 voted. Voter turnout was low in Bulgaria but high in Turkey, a reality that sparked demonstrations in front of the Turkish Embassy in Sofia as protesters accused the Turkish government of interfering in Bulgaria’s national election process. Accusations point to the campaigns of Bulgaria’s first Turkish Presidential candidate Mustafa Karadayi that took place in Turkey. This situation drew the ire of GERB, and even the provincial chairman of the Istanbul branch of Karadayi’s own party, the Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF), accused members of the community of damaging solidarity and unity among the Turks of Bulgaria.
Bulgaria’s “First” Turkish Presidential Candidate
On 5 June, Mustafa Karadayi met with Mustafa Sentop, president of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, to discuss the Bulgarian elections, stating: “Bulgaria is our home. We are not muhajir in Bulgaria. Turkey is our homeland. We have remained in Bulgaria after the collapse of Ottoman rule there. We struggle to protect our Turkish identity, our language, religion, and customs in Bulgaria. It is a fact that we have difficulties.” This meeting with Sentop and his speech about Bulgaria’s Turkish minority can be seen as a major turning point in Karadayi’s candidacy.
In what has become a highly publicized and politicized moment, President Radev met with political parties amid their failure to form a government subsequent to the 11 July elections. During this meeting he asked Karadayi where his home was. This loaded question highlighted the historical relations between Bulgaria, its politically powerful Turkish minority, and their ethnic kin state of Turkey. Radev’s remarks sparked indignation among ethnically Turkish Bulgarian citizens living in Turkey. Mobilized by local migrants’ associations, dual Turkish-Bulgarian citizens in Turkey used this outrage as a rallying cry, taking to the polls en masse to show Radev exactly “where their home was”.
Before the 14 November
A few days before the 14 November elections, TRT, Turkey’s national television channel, aired a film about Naim Suleymanoglu, a national hero of Bulgaria’s Turks who resisted the communist regime’s attempts to assimilate the Turkish and Muslim minority. Shortly afterward, prominent journalist of Turkey’s most-watched morning news …, politicians from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), leaders of the Nation Alliance Meral Aksener and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, and several opposition politicians including Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu, called on dual Turkish-Bulgarian citizens living in Turkey to vote in the Bulgarian elections. The call to action revolved around notions of protecting the rights of Turkey’s ethnic kin in Bulgaria, acting in solidarity with the political representation of Turks in Bulgaria, and fighting for democracy. Some from the community even complained that they received incessant messages and calls from associations urging them to vote as an act of solidarity.
But what made this election different from the others, and why did it resonate so strongly among Turkey’s public?
There is no doubt that the rise of Bulgaria’s “first” presidential candidate of Turkish origin aroused excitement within Turkey. The novelty in this narrative helped the MRF and migrants’ associations to mobilize voters in Turkey, even if it wasn’t based on fact; indeed, Bulgaria’s first presidential candidate of Turkish origin was Sali Saban in 2011.
Migrants’ Associations Functioning as Political Liaisons
The increasing visibility of Bulgarian elections in the Turkish public sphere is not a new phenomenon, but it reached its zenith on 14 November. Enormous photographs of Mustafa Karadayi appeared on several billboards and campaign posters of the MRF were posted at migrants’ associations, on the windows of neighborhood artisans, and at central locations in districts inhabited by Bulgarian citizens. All of these posters called on Turks with Bulgarian citizenship to act in unity and solidarity by voting to protect their soydaş’s (ethnic kin’s) identity. This narrative emphasizing the need to protect Turkish and Muslim identities is nothing new for Turks who were exposed to the assimilation policies of Bulgaria’s communist regime between 1984-1989.
Ever increasing attention has been paid to Bulgarian elections in Turkey since the 1990s and the collapse of the communist regime in the country. At this time, Turks gained a right to representation in the Bulgarian parliament, and in 1998 Bulgarian law allowed them to be granted dual Turkish-Bulgarian citizenship. Since then, Bulgarian citizens living in Turkey have paid closer attention to the Bulgarian elections. Karadayi’s MRF and various other parties continue to craft and promote policies that target Turkish and Muslim minorities in Bulgaria, and the struggle to represent these minority groups in the Bulgarian parliament has repercussions in Turkey as well.
Undoubtedly, the actors of this political struggle are not limited to political parties. Bulgarian elections have also occupied the agenda of associations and other entities representing Turkish immigrants from Bulgaria living in Turkey. The political struggle for Turkish representation in Bulgaria is particularly salient for these local migrants’ associations working in neighborhoods that are densely populated by migrants from Bulgaria. The most recent elections go to show that such organizations have the agency to influence Bulgarian politics.
*Sinem Arslan is PhD student at Bogazici University, the Ataturk Institute for Modern Turkish History. Arslan’s primary research fields are migration, memory and collective traumas and the Balkans. She can be found on Twitter: @snm_arslann.