Bad news within a good Bulgaria poll result

By bne IntelliNews October 31, 2006

Rob Whitford in Sofia -

For the EU-minded and politically correct, there’s good news and bad news in the poll for Bulgaria’s less-than-executive but distinctly-more-than-ceremonial presidency.

Bulgaria’s voters were faced with a choice in last Sunday’s run-off between the consensual and pro-EU incumbent, former socialist leader Georgi Parvanov, and the fiery radical nationalist Volen Siderov. And they opted overwhelmingly for Parvanov, who received almost 76% of the votes to Siderov’s 24% — a margin of more than three to one.

That good news was not particularly unsurprising news: no-one expected Siderov to win or to come anywhere close to it. And, for some months, few had expected Parvanov to do anything but win, whoever his opponent.

Parvanov's advantages were numerous. He’s the personable and popular incumbent of an office in which it’s very difficult to be unpopular, since its main function is to act as the voice of sweet reason, criticising and in some cases holding up government policies.

Georgi Parvanov

After last year’s indecisive parliamentary elections, Parvanov oversaw the long and tricky formation of a coalition government which – though widely criticized – at least guaranteed that Bulgaria would be able to press ahead with the reforms needed to secure the widely supported goal of EU membership on the scheduled date of January 1, 2007.

While that go-ahead was slow in coming and qualified, it was finally given in late September, less than a month before elections. Partly, it should be added, thanks to one of the “president’s men”: his former adviser Boris Velchev, who took over as prosecutor general back in February and, well thought of internationally, was one important reason why Brussels was convinced that Bulgaria is making serious efforts in the still-problematic areas of corruption and organised crime.

Contrast this with Siderov. A journalist in the anti-communist mainstream in the early days of transition, he’s gone his own distinctive way in the last decade.

Volen Siderov

In a country where ethnic conflict has been blessedly low-key by regional standards, he’s given to vitriolic rants against the Roma and Turkish minorities. And even to anti-semitic hints, in a country where there’s almost no tradition of it – and where a proud national memory is refusal to hand over Bulgaria’s Jews to Hitler in 1943.

While not explicitly anti-EU, he’s notably at variance with “European values” in a country where pro-EU sentiment is still strong.

Politically, he has a considerable talent for shooting himself in the foot. His Ataka party won 21 out of 240 seats in Bulgaria’s single-chamber parliament in last year’s elections, but he’s managed to alienate enough colleagues to reduce his faction to just 12. And he’s, well, erratic: involved in a minor collision on a motorway in April, he immediately assumed it was an assassination attempt, and his muscular chauffeur proceeded to assault the putative assassin – a young student driving his 76-year-old grandfather.

Small wonder, then, that Parvanov won so handsomely. But there are at least three pieces of bad news.

Voter apathy

The first is voter turnout, which was alarmingly low. It ran to little more than 42% in the first round – and stayed at roughly the same level in the second round.

Contrast that with a 54% turnout in the run-offs in 2001. True, in 2001 the outcome was in some doubt, with Parvanov competing against a popular right-wing incumbent. Many voters this time round may have felt that their votes would not make a real difference. With so much at stake symbolically, however, mass abstention doesn’t say much for civic commitment.

The second piece of bad news is that the vote for Siderov, though it represented a minority of this relatively low turnout – round 21% in the first round and 24% in the second – also represented an advance on Ataka’s performance in 2005. Then, the party won rather more than 8% of a turnout in the mid-50s – less than 5% of the electorate.

With the government less than sure-footed in the months after its formation, opinion polls showed a gradual rise in Ataka’s popularity, with as many as 14% saying in February that they would vote for it were there to be parliamentary elections. It had seemed to peak then, its ratings declining thereafter under the influence of fragmentation and of Siderov’s highway antics.

On the face of it, Siderov’s performance puts him firmly back in the game. Especially as the ethnic card isn’t the only one in his hand. Crime and corruption are matters of concern not only in Brussels but also to ordinary Bulgarians. And they have loomed large in Siderov’s rhetoric, albeit with a distinctive slant: a prime source of corruption, according to him, is the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms – a partner of the socialists in the ruling coalition and a party for which, in private, few Bulgarians have a kind word.

As to the mafia, that too is widely supposed to have well placed supporters. And Siderov has his variant on that, too: it has just secured the presidency for its representative Georgi Parvanov!

The floundering right

The third piece of bad news is that Ataka’s success has resulted partly from disarray on the right of the political spectrum – a rather unhealthy situation and one that is unlikely to find an entirely healthy solution in the near future.

The conventional right, for a start, is too self-absorbed to be politically effective. Evicted after a relatively successful spell in government in 2001, it split and split again. It’s still profoundly divided on matters of political strategy and tactics. Aside from anti-communism and disapproval of the assumed corruption of the present government, no fragment of the right really has a very clear idea of what it’s about. And the sum total of its efforts at unity before the elections was its success in choosing the elderly and unelectable judge Nedelcho Beronov as its candidate.

The less conventional right was what displaced the conventional right in 2001, in the form of the returning ex-King Simeon Saxe-Coburg and his newly formed Simeon II National Movement, which won half the seats in parliament in that year. Deprived of its magic over four years of fiscally sound but prosaic government, it’s now a minority partner in the socialist-led government. Its ratings are dwindling, Saxe-Coburg has become liability rather than asset, and the SNM lacked the confidence even to field a candidate of its own.

A realignment is on the cards, probably in favour of the least conventional rightist of all, Boiko Borisov. Karate expert, former fireman and former owner of a successful security company, Borisov was installed as interior ministry chief secretary – effectively Bulgaria’s top cop – by Saxe-Coburg in 2001.

Massively popular from the start as a result of his “action man” image, Borisov has lately gone it alone. He stood successfully for mayor of Sofia last year. Earlier this year, he founded his own “civic association.” Called Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria, it’s generally assumed to have been part of the reason why Ataka lost ground after February. And it’s due to be converted into a party in early December.

Reckoned to have been the only politician capable of giving Parvanov a run for his money, Borisov has instead set his cap at government, calling for an end to the coalition next year and for early parliamentary elections.

That didn’t stop him claiming a role in the selection process and clashing with right-wing hardliner and former premier Ivan Kostov, who was keen to keep him out and insistent on Beronov’s candidacy. Now Beronov has failed, the arguments of those better disposed to Borisov have been confirmed.

Popular, and widely perceived as a “strong hand” able to act decisively against crime and corruption – addressing some of the concerns exploited by Ataka without playing the ethnic card – Borisov is also seen by many right-of-centre politicians as the means of restoring the right to electability. It could be a Faustian deal.

Rob Whitford

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