Bulgaria accuses Turkish minister of interfering in election campaign

Bulgaria accuses Turkish minister of interfering in election campaign
By Dimitar Koychev in Sofia March 8, 2017

Relations between Sofia and Ankara are under pressure after Bulgarian Deputy Foreign Minister Boyko Mirchev summoned the Turkish ambassador in Sofia over reports that a Turkish minister had campaigned on behalf of the Dost party in advance of Bulgaria’s March 26 general election. 

Dost was founded in 2015 by the former leader of Bulgaria's predominantly ethnic-Turk party Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS). The party is small and is not expected to gain enough votes to enter the parliament in the upcoming election. However, there have been reports of overtures between Dost and top Turkish officials after a rift opened between Ankara and the DPS. 

Ambassador Suleyman Gokce was summoned to the Bulgarian foreign minister following reports that Turkey’s Minister of Labour and Social Security Mehmet Muezzinoglu had urged Bulgarian Turk immigrants to vote for Dost, a foreign ministry statement said on March 7. 

The statement noted that Turkey’s permission for opening polling stations categorically forbids political campaigning on Turkish territory. Muezzinoglu’s appeals to Bulgarian immigrants in Istanbul on March 3 and March 6 violated this requirement.

"Promising material stimuli in case of voting and open calls to back a certain political party are something we consider direct interference in Bulgaria's internal affairs and deem completely unacceptable," the statement also notes. Mirchev asked Gokce to inform his government of the stance of the Bulgarian side.

On March 7, Bulgaria’s deputy foreign minister also called on Turkish officials not to allow such violations in the future. This would allow the two countries to concentrate on issues important for their bilateral relations, the statement concluded.

Dost’s founder Lyutvi Mestan was the DPS leader until 2015. However, in December 2015 DPS founder and honorary chairman Ahmed Dogan had slammed Mestan over his declaration of support for Turkey in the dispute following the downing of Russia's SU-24 bomber.

At a meeting of the DPS’s central council on December 24, Mestan was removed from the post of DPS leader and expelled from the party. Mestan was not present at the meeting as he was temporarily hiding in the Turkish embassy in Sofia, citing threats on his life.

After this painful experience, Mestan moved on and set up the new party Dost, an acronym for the Bulgarian phrase “Democrats for Responsibility, Freedom and Tolerance”. In Turkish, “dost” means “friend”. The party name seems to have been chosen to appeal to the ethnic Turk electorate, given that its founder is an ethnic Turk, who came from a predominantly ethnic-Turk party, and most of the members of the new party’s governing bodies have Turkish names. However, it should be noted that Bulgaria’s Constitution stipulates, “There shall be no political parties on ethnic, racial or religious lines, nor parties which seek the violent seizure of state power”. Turks are Bulgaria’s largest ethnic minority, accounting for around 8% of the population. 

Dost’s inaugural congress was held in April 2016 and Ambassador Gokce was among the guests of honour. A week before the event, Mestan visited Ankara and told then Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that there was a need for strategic partnership between Bulgaria and Turkey and that the new party would contribute in this respect. In August, Mestan also met Turkey’s new Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. In October, a Dost delegation led by Mestan held a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.

Still, it seems unlikely that Dost will manage to have representatives in the next Bulgarian parliament after the early general elections scheduled for March 26. On March 8, the results of a poll by Gallup International showed that the party is supported by less than 1% of the respondents, which compares with 4% required in order to enter the parliament. On the other hand, the DPS was supported by 8.2%.

Applying the threshold percentage to 3.5mn, the number of voters at the last parliamentary elections, and assuming unchanged turnout, the 4% requirement means that a party will need at least 140,000 votes in order to enter the parliament.

In November, after the first round of the presidential elections in Bulgaria, Mestan estimated that Dost had 11,650 votes in the polling stations in Turkey. At these elections, the party did not have its own candidate, but supported Tsetska Tsacheva, the candidate of then ruling right-wing Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB). In the second round, Tsacheva lost to the candidate of then opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP).