By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
Thirty-eight parties and seven coalitions are competing in Bulgaria’s national parliamentary elections on May 12 2013, but of this total no more than seven are seen as possible holders of seats in the 42nd National Assembly.
The contest is dominated by the rivalry between Boiko Borissov’s centre-right GERB party and the Bulgarian Socialist Party, led by Sergei Stanishev, who was prime minister from 2005 to 2009, when Borissov defeated the socialists at regular elections to take over government.
The other parties all but certain to enter Parliament are the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and Ataka. Seen as possible winners of handfuls of seats are Meglena Kouneva’s Bulgaria for Citizens, Yane Yanev’s Order Law and Justice party, and the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria.
However, surprises are possible on election day, even as major polling agencies prepare to release their final estimates before May 11, the “Day of Contemplation” on which campaigning, canvassing and the release of polls are illegal.
GERB. In translation, the name of Borissov’s party means “Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria”; the Bulgarian abbreviation is also the word for “coat of arms”. After his background as an Interior Ministry employee, trained firefighter and bodyguard, Borissov rose to prominence in the media when he was chief secretary of the Interior Ministry during the government of former monarch Simeon Saxe-Coburg, who was prime minister from 2001 to 2005. Borissov made frequent headlines for his strongman image in accompanying busts of organised crime groups, and for sternly criticising the courts that, in his pet phrase, “let them out after we arrest them”. Though frequently denying political ambitions in those years, he was elected mayor of Sofia with GERB formed around him, with Borissov as “informal leader” because Bulgarian law forbids mayors to be political party leaders. In short, in a succession of elections, GERB defeated the socialists on all fronts until it had mayors in all major cities, the majority of Bulgaria’s seats in the European Parliament, took the largest share of seats in the National Assembly and successfully nominated former cabinet minister Rossen Plevneliev to become President. In power, Borissov presided over large-scale infrastructure projects, including his signature theme of building highways, annoyed Moscow by opposing various major Russian-linked projects, notably the Belene nuclear power station project, and pursued a policy of fiscal tight-fistedness. Especially among Bulgaria’s diplomatic corps, his government sought to rid the ranks of former communist-era State Security agents and collaborators. However, Bulgaria has continued to fail to come up to European Union standards on fighting organised crime and corruption, has not been admitted to the Schengen visa zone, got no significantly closer to accession to the euro and – importantly – has failed to stimulate income and jobs growth in the face of the global and euro financial crisis. Faced with nationwide street protest against monopolies and a range of cost-of-living grievances, mainly about high electricity bills after the coldest months, Borissov resigned as prime minister, opening the way for early elections. GERB’s campaign has been to emphasise the continuation of infrastructure projects, its track record that is far better than that of the socialists in using EU funds, while at the same time responding to the early 2013 crisis by promising better social terms for Bulgarians. Critics portray Borissov as power-obsessed, having questionable connections to controversial powerful business figures and by extension organised crime, and have tied up GERB with allegations of extensive unlawful covert surveillance. GERB is said to be set for the largest share of votes, but way down from its 2009 performance and, apparently lacking obvious coalition partners, Borissov may not be able to form a government anew.
The Bulgarian Socialist Party. Lineal successor to the Bulgarian Communist Party, under Stanishev the BSP was in power as the majority partner in a tripartite coalition government from 2005 for four years. In that time, Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, but suffered the scandal of the suspension of stupendous sums of EU funds because of shortcomings in administration. It rode the wave of a relative boom during a time of incoming foreign investment and a property boom, but when the financial crisis came, socialists ministers were caught in a form of paralysis as they appeared to fail to understand the problem while remaining inert, offering no responses, especially in the final months when it was clear that the BSP was set for electoral defeat at the hands of Borissov. It was under the socialists that Bulgaria came under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism of the European Commission, to bring it up to EU standards in justice and home affairs, a process that in 2013 still has not produced results definitive enough for the CVM to be lifted. This year, the BSP has been strident in its campaign to resume the Russian-linked Belene nuclear project, and has promised massive job creation, although its programme is vague on details how this would be achieved, beyond “creating a better business environment”. In power, the socialists say, they would scrap the 10 per cent flat tax on individuals – which they themselves, ironically for socialists, introduced when in government – to make way for a progressive tax with high rates for higher-income earners. Stanishev, who has held on to the leadership he has had since 2002 in spite of a succession of election defeats and a 2012 leadership challenge from former president Georgi Purvanov, has said that should be the BSP win, not he but former finance minister Plamen Oresharski would head the government. Unlike GERB, the BSP has at least one significant party that would be a likely coalition partner – the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, its partner in power from 2005 to 2009.
The Movement for Rights and Freedoms. On the face of it, the MRF has its origins in the traumatic episode under communism when the Zhivkov regime forcibly renamed Bulgarians of the Muslim faith and ethnic Turkish origin to adopt (or, officially, “re-adopt their lost”) Bulgarian names. This led to protests, clashes, deaths in detention and a mass exodus of Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity to Turkey. In the “round table” process after the formal end of communism, the MRF, rather than align itself with the anti-communist Union of Democratic Forces, tended to make common cause with the now-renamed socialists. This was a matter for consternation, given that it seemed that those who had felt the brunt of the communist regime might be expected to oppose their successors, but it emerged that not only MRF founder Ahmed Dogan but also several senior members of the party had been agents for the communist-era secret service State Security. The party frequently has been in coalition governments, both with Saxe-Coburg and with Stanishev, and is frequently seen by detractors as the real manipulator of events for the sake of business interests close to the MRF. It has fended off allegations of being an ethnic party, though it is commonly referred to as the Turkish party, by carefully placing non-Turks among its election lists. Instead, it places itself officially among the ranks of “liberal” parties. Issues that is has fought most strenuously include the long saga of the privatisation of former tobacco monopoly Bulgartabac, because of the impact that restructuring would have on tobacco workers, who tend to be in ethnic Turkish areas that form its most important electorate. Dogan has been at the centre of many controversies, including the high fees – running into millions – that he was paid as a consultant on the Tsankov Kamuk hydro-power project (Dogan has a philosophy degree so it was not clear how his expertise was needed; an official investigation cleared him of conflict-of-interest allegations). There was much excitement when unofficial tape emerged of Dogan speaking at a party gathering about “business circles” and saying that it did not matter whether the party was in or out of power, its influence remained the same. Dogan also was at the centre of a bizarre incident in January 2013 when a man rushed at him on stage with a gas pistol at the party congress where he stepped down as leader, and more recently, in March, Borissov alleged that Dogan had ordered his murder for touching on certain organised crime interests. Dogan’s successor as MRF leader is his close lieutenant Lyutvi Mestan, also a former State Security agent. The MRF always has turned in a solid performance of about five per cent in each election, and always has been able to mobilise electoral support from Turkish citizens who hold Bulgarian passports, many of them who live in the neighbouring country after the “great excursion” that followed the renaming campaign.
Ataka. A former journalist who worked in media and public relations long ago both for the right-wing UDF and the socialists (though not at the same time), Volen Siderov burst on to the national political scene in 2005 at the head of ultra-nationalists Ataka (“Attack”). Siderov’s brand of ultra-nationalism is predicated on being anti-Turkish, pro-Russian, xenophobic, homophobic, while his books have been described as anti-Semitic and he frequently accuses Bulgaria’s mosques of being hotbeds of radical Islam. Ataka has opposed co-operation with the US military, is effectively Euroskeptic, throws around allegations about Bulgaria being unduly influenced by the machinations of the Turkish secret service – particularly via the MRF and the Foreign Ministry, and wants foreign investors in Bulgaria’s electricity utilities expelled from the country and these nationalised. A list of controversies in which he has been involved would be exhausting; just one was an attempt to present, in a restaurant, the then-American ambassador with a bill for military facilities in Bulgaria shared with the US. In the two terms it has been in Parliament, Ataka always has ended up with far fewer MPs than it started with, because of infighting, though Siderov routinely has accused GERB of using cash to buy off his MPs. Siderov’s peak was in 2006, when he ran second in the presidential race. Late 2012 saw Ataka apparently heading for oblivion, but the anti-monopoly protests gave it a new lease of life and, a week before the election, Siderov promised that Ataka would be the “surprise” of this campaign.
Bulgaria for Citizens. Meglena Kouneva first came to notice as Bulgaria’s chief negotiator on EU accession until her appointment under the Saxe-Coburg government as EU affairs minister; she kept that job in the tripartite socialist-led coalition that came into office in 2005, before two years later becoming Bulgaria’s first European Commissioner when the country joined the bloc. Kouneva re-emerged in politics in 2011, standing in a wide field of candidates in the presidential election and drawing 14 per cent, even though her platform was remarkably vague. Her “Bulgaria for Citizens Movement” was founded by people disaffected from other parties, several from Saxe-Coburg’s party which in 2009 failed to win any seats in Parliament. Apart from its notions of bottom-up democracy, Kouneva’s party has lacked memorable and direct messages and has been teetering – according to the polls – on the threshold of entry to Parliament. For all her talk against the political establishment and slight shifts in positions on possible coalitions, Kouneva’s party is seen as a likely third partner for a BSP-MRF coalition government, should GERB fail to form an administration. However, it is also not impossible that GERB would seek to recruit Kouneva to a coalition.
Order Law and Justice. Another party that until recently was written off, Yane Yanev’s OLJ is a platform for the former right-winger to emit various documents and allegations about corruption and other sinister doings in high places. The veracity of Yanev’s allegations frequently has been difficult to confirm. Yanev’s political relationship with Borissov has been ambivalent; by the end of the previous Parliament, OLJ moved to the more positive role of being a “constructive opposition” to GERB, taking the place of the voting support that, after 2009, initially had been given informally by Ataka.
The National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria. Until recently, also written off, this ultra-nationalist entity, effectively a splinter from Ataka, is seen as among lesser parties to have benefited from disillusionment among the electorate at the antics of the major parties. It was formed by the owner of Skat, the television station formerly the mouthpiece of Ataka. Its platform is largely the same as that of Ataka, with only personality differences.