With their toddlers sticky with ice cream and their dogs panting in the summer heat, the Bulgarians protesting for the past week look very different to the gloomy crowds that toppled the government in February.
But this does not make the colourful mass with their sunglasses, bikes, songs and clever catchphrases any less determined to see the back of the new three-week-old government and for a shake-up of the whole political class.
“We want to oust these corrupt demagogues who call themselves ‘a political class’. It’s the future of our children here that is at stake — or emigration,” teacher Ilian Kamenov, 42, told AFP at a recent march in Sofia.
“I was seven when my parents took me to rallies for democracy when communism fell (in 1989),” said another, Kamelia Mitova, 31. “It’s unbelievable that I am here now for the same reasons.”
The spark that ignited this latest crisis in the EU’s poorest country was the Socialist-backed government’s decision earlier this month to appoint a 32-year-old media mogul to head a powerful state security authority.
For the protesters, this showed that the new administration was in cahoots with the same old powerful business interests and that its promises of a new era of transparency and accountability were lies.
Even though the government quickly reversed the security chief decision, between 7,000 and 10,000 people have taken part in daily demonstrations since June 14 – marching and dancing, shouting and singing along Sofia’s boulevards every evening.
On a special page on social networking website Facebook, used to great effect to organise the latest protests, the demonstrators say they want to “oust the oligarchy” and see Bulgaria governed like any other nation in the European Union.
“Even if we are smiling, we are angry” they say.
“Protest noisily, react wisely!”, is one of their slogans. “”NOresharski! NOligarchy!” is another, a pun on the name of the prime minister, Plamen Oresharski, brought in as a non-partisan safe pair of hands.
Many popular faces — writers, actors, musicians, professors, human rights activists — are seen in the rallies, just as they were during the first demonstrations in the country after the toppling of communism in 1989.
In February, by contrast, the demonstrators were mostly poorer, angrier and desperate, taking to the streets across the country after receiving winter heating bills that they simply could not pay. Seven people set themselves on fire.
“Contrary to the February protests about people’s empty pockets, these protests are about morals. These are young, well-educated people, who also earn well — Sofia’s middle class — that will be harder to appease,” political analyst Dimitar Ganev said.
“At last, people started to understand the importance of civil society that was very under-developed up till now,” said analyst Antoaneta Tsoneva from the Institute for Public Environment Development.
But most analysts were however convinced that even if protesters’ anger is justified, toppling the three-week-old cabinet and holding new snap elections risked turning a crisis into a calamity.
Instead, the president — who has openly sympathised with the protests — has urged parliament to start work on changes to the electoral code to improve people’s political representation by opening the way for new faces and smaller parties to enter the legislature at the next elections.
In order to give parliament time to do that, the new vote must be put off until May 2014 when Bulgaria will also hold elections for European parliament, Gallup analyst Zhivko Georgiev said.
This would also leave time for the government to address the most pressing social problems such as growing poverty and unemployment and falling living standards to avoid new anti-poverty rallies next winter, Sofia University political analyst Maria Pirgova added.
A protester attends an anti-government protest in Sofia, on June 22, 2013. The ‘smiling’ Bulgarians protesting for the past week look very different to the gloomy crowds that toppled the government in February, but they are just as determined to see the back of the new three-week-old government/AFP