Bulgaria's complicated domestic politics playing out in Euro polls

By bne IntelliNews May 12, 2014

Sandy Gill in Sofia -


On a cynical view, elections for the European Parliament (EP) are a sideshow, a glorified opinion poll. Yet just under a fortnight before Bulgarians — or some of them — troop out on May 25 to elect their 17 MEPs, Bulgaria’s political elite seems to be taking them, in its way, quite seriously. Campaigning’s energetic and often vituperative — though only marginally concerned with European issues — and everyone has an eye to the somewhat complicated political situation at home.

The battle for first place is between Citizen for the European Development of Bulgaria —universally known by its local acronym of GERB — and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), successor to the ruling party of communist days. GERB, led by the mouthy and macho Boiko Borisov, was hounded out of office last year by demonstrations over high electricity bills. The BSP, though second to GERB in the subsequent elections, was the only party capable of forming a government, which it did in an arithmetically tricky environment.

Along with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) — a party with largely ethnic Turkish rank and file, though significant numbers of ethnic Bulgarians in leadership positions — the BSP had exactly half the 240 members of parliament. So it had to rely sometimes for parliamentary quorums and majorities on the extreme Bulgarian nationalists of Ataka and their erratic leader Volen Siderov, an anomalous partner for leftists and an ethnic minority party. Subject to repeated strains and histrionics, and lately diluted by a few defections from parliamentary factions, it’s an arrangement that hasn’t actually broken down yet.

Pressure has been external as well as internal: mass demonstrations resulted from an attempt in the government’s first month to appoint Delyan Peevski — a controversial MRF parliamentarian and businessman who, to put it kindly, needs an image consultant — to head the nearest thing Bulgaria has to an FBI. Even though Peevski’s candidacy was withdrawn almost immediately, the protests lasted for months, escalating into demands for the resignation of the government. Instead it has just sat tight.

In the running

Aside from GERB, BSP, MRF and Ataka, there are other contenders for the EP. Seventeen of them, in fact. But the ones reckoned by pundits to have a chance are basically four.

There’s the Alternative for Bulgarian Renaissance (ABV in Bulgarian), a recently revived group of leftist dissidents headed by former BSP leader and President Georgi Parvanov, which favours “social” policies like progressive taxation as well as chiding the BSP for not making good on promises to revive the Russian-backed Belene nuclear power plant.

There’s the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), an Ataka breakaway that’s arguably more extreme than Ataka itself — with ideas including exclusion from school of Roma children whose Bulgarian isn’t up to scratch and the banning of headscarves — as well as massively keen on historical anniversaries.

There’s the Reformist Bloc (RB), the latest attempt of a conventional right wing that’s chronically fragmented — and outbid since 2001 by successive centre-right populists — to present a united front. Admittedly, it’s doing so without the rather radical Green Party, which was originally included and, albeit somewhat out of place in RB, had quite a knack for mobilising protests.

And there’s the coalition centred on Bulgaria Without Censorship (BWC), a wannabe mould-breaker led by former TV journalist Nikolay Barekov. Allied with the fairly moderate nationalists of the venerable Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO-BND), with a previously-BSP aligned fragment of the equally historic Agrarian movement, and with the anti-corruption Gergyovden movement, BWC also has an asset in its women’s organisation, the busily concerned Euromothers. Increasingly broad in his denunciations of the political elite — many of whom should, according to him, be in prison for corruption — Barekov has seen a breakthrough at the EP elections as a means of forcing new parliamentary elections and, by now enjoying the support of four renegade MPs, has been predicting further defections. Much given to promises — a 25% rise in police pay being one of the more moderate ones — Barekov is eccentrically difficult for political entomologists to pin down: he’s called for a revival of the communist-era “People’s Republic” style for Bulgaria (at present it’s a plain “Republic”), but he’s also been wooing the UK's David Cameron.

Business as usual?

In certain respects, results appear to be wide open. Bulgarian pollsters differ chronically — and a lot of them just aren’t trusted by the locals. But Alpha Research, a go-to polling agency for the cognoscenti, did a survey in late April showing GERB’s support at 17.6% of respondents and BSP’s at 15.9% (of a “top eight” support of 59%), which would be a sizeable and, for the BSP, a discouraging gap if it happens.

The BSP certainly seems to be taking the campaign seriously, with its leader Sergei Stanishev — unpopular with some in the party — staking his prestige by taking first place on the BSP slate (though none but his enemies say he’s in fact likely to take up his seat). Stressing the EP’s importance in achieving a “social Europe”, the BSP has also played on themes of social justice, of “reindustrialisation”, and taking responsibility in a tough situation, accusing GERB of “running away” in 2013.

As to GERB, it has fielded Tomislav Donchev, a rather successful EU funds minister, as top candidate and is stressing competence. Leader Borisov, temporarily flummoxed by last year’s developments, now seems back on bombastic form, disparaging the BSP colourfully: taunting the Socialists for not reviving the Belene nuclear plant and for presiding over record unemployment, he’s predicting budgetary revision and — for reasons that aren’t quite clear — outright collapse within a year if the BSP continues to rule. GERB has also just raised the stakes in the run-up to elections by announcing it will table a motion of no confidence in the government over energy policy — an area in which everyone blames everyone else for what’s generally admitted to be a real mess. Meanwhile, Borisov’s henchman and former interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov — national bogeyman this time last year amid wiretapping and vote-rigging allegations — is now confidently running GERB’s campaign.

With 6.2% support and a well-disciplined electorate, MRF seems certain to enter the EP as well. Fairly gaffe-proof thanks to core supporters’ loyalty, the MRF’s vote, unlike its image, will probably be little dented by a decision to field none other than Peevski as its number two candidate. Pundits’ interpretations differ: some say it’s a demonstration that the MRF looks after its own, some say it’s Peevski’s own vain insistence, others reckon it’s a device to get an embarrassing figure out of Bulgaria, and some say it’s just blithe disregard for public opinion.

Patriot games

There certainty stops, however. With BWC at 4.9% support according to Alpha, and ABV and RB at 4.5% each, there’s a little doubt as to their prospects. The threshold for entry to the EP is 5.88% of votes cast, which all three should reach if those declaring support actually turn out. They may not: Alpha’s survey showed an intention to vote on the part of only 46% of those polled — not bad for an EP election, incidentally. Low turnout could exclude two or even all three.

However, that 4.9% marked a slight month-on-month decline for BWC: this, together with the fact that MP defections have so far been less than an avalanche, maybe suggests less-than-mould-breaking form. On the other hand, whether or not ABV enters the EP, it may be presumed to have put a dent in BSP support. As to RB, failure to get an MEP would probably shatter the fragile alliance, but it must be said that the rightists haven’t been too intelligent about avoiding it: in a time that cries out for “civic participation”, they have put up a slate heavy with party leaders — and headed it with former EU commissioner Meglena Kuneva. Though a capable administrator, she’s widely distrusted on the right and heads a party that has more or less disintegrated.

As to the nationalists, 3% and 2.5% wouldn’t get them into the EP, and divisions are bitter. But Ataka’s Siderov, though somewhat compromised by de facto support for a government including ethnic Turks, has everything to play for and, in his erratic way, is playing the cards available to him with some panache. Outspokenly against the EU (which he describes sometimes as colonial and sometimes as a US puppet) and “anti-globalist”, he’s elaborated a role as Russia’s biggest friend during the Ukrainian crisis, while the government has mainly confined itself to measured defence of the South Stream gas pipeline and earnest pleas for caution. Citing historic ties with Bulgaria’s Russian “liberators”, Siderov has denounced “fascist” influence in Kyiv, threatened to topple the Bulgarian government if it went along with EU sanctions, invited the Russian foreign minister to Bulgaria, and even launched his election campaign in Moscow, where he went to receive a medal. And while Bulgaria certainly can’t be stereotyped as a simply “pro-Russian” country, there are certainly votes to be had in Russophilia. True, Siderov has also got his anger-management problems: facing charges arising from a fracas with a French diplomat in January, he’s also recently been alleged — correctly or not — to have had a confrontation in a bar with drinkers who refused to say they’d vote for him.

Meanwhile, Barekov seems to be playing his own variant of the patriot card. Though resolutely pro-EU, he’s insisting that the Union needs reform and is giving Bulgaria far less than it should. He’s called for a strengthening of the Bulgarian army, as the only real guarantee of the country’s independence should Moscow try moves similar to those it has made in Ukraine. He’s called for help to those of Ukraine’s ethnic Bulgarians who want to “come home” — a much more acceptable addition to the labour force, he says, than Syrian refugees. And, when the inhabitants of a Bulgarian village drove out some Syrians living there, outraging liberal opinion, Barekov proclaimed himself the only politician who went there and “understood”.

The situation’s fluid. If a week is a long time in politics, a fortnight is an age. Not only because the situation in Ukraine is moving fast, but also because last-minute happenings aren’t unknown in Bulgarian elections. In May 2013, revelations (by Barekov) of several hundred thousand “spare” ballot papers on the eve of elections — in a case that, incidentally, hasn’t subsequently been upheld judicially — may have cost GERB several percentage points. It’s an interesting question what rabbits will emerge from what hats this time.

And another interesting question, as we shall see, is whether EP elections will have any influence on the course of national politics.



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