Rob Whitford in Sofia -
The consensus is that it's a "when," not a "whether." When Bulgarians go to the polls for Sunday, October 28's local elections, all eyes will be on the capital Sofia and its incumbent mayor Boiko Borisov. Pundits agree he's a shoe-in for re-election; the question is whether he'll get the 50% of votes needed to win on the first round, or whether the contest will need to go to a run-off the following week.
The competition is numerous - 33 mayoral candidates are standing in Sofia - but it's not exactly stiff. The former communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) has never been too successful in the capital and its candidate, career intelligence officer Brigo Asparuhov, certainly won't prove the exception to that rule, though he might make the run-off. The right has traditionally dominated in Sofia, and its two main groupings have sunk their differences enough to field a common candidate - the cosmopolitan banker Martin Zaimov, the other possible runner-up. But his appeal is somewhat rarified, and he's been predictably unsuccessful in steering the debate onto the niceties of financial management.
Borisov, by contrast, is running to some extent on his two-year record as mayor, but to a large extent on charisma. He's quite a phenomenon. A former fireman, former national karate coach, and owner of a post-communist security firm, he was brought into public life when former king Simeon Saxe-Coburg became prime minister in 2001. As chief secretary of the interior ministry - effectively Bulgaria's top cop - his "action man" style, machismo and talent for self-publicity quickly earned him a place as the country's most popular public figure. This he cashed in by standing successfully as an independent candidate for Sofia mayor when the post fell vacant in autumn 2005.
Springboard to bigger things
And he's aiming higher. Last year, he started calling for early elections, denouncing the incumbent government, which comprises the BSP, the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), and the party of his former patron Saxe-Coburg, which now calls itself the National Movement for Stability and Progress (NMSP). He founded his own party, Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB, in its Bulgarian acronym), which has since outstripped the BSP as the most popular political force, winning most votes in May's elections for the European Parliament. And he's supplemented his earthy populist appeal with a very pro-business and low-tax economic platform.
Local elections will be a further test for GERB - and conceivably a springboard. That goes not just for Borisov's own contest in Sofia. Since the mayor is subject to a lot of constraints, it will be important whether GERB achieves a majority on the Sofia municipal council - or can make the alliances to achieve one if it fails. Pundits will be looking for progress outside the capital too, and probably won't be disappointed: some think Borisov's man in Plovdiv, Slavcho Atanasov, will win on the first round, while the successful Dobrich mayor Detelina Nikolova has forsaken the NMSP and chosen to stand for re-election with GERB backing. And she's not the only politician who knows which way the wind is blowing.
They'll be a test for the ruling coalition, too. The MRF, with its well-defined electorate, won't suffer much, but the BSP is expected to lose some ground - the question being how much. The NMSP, which won 120 seats in parliament in 2001 and 54 in 2005, would be hard put to it to win 15 now, as polls have consistently shown. The question is: just how brutally the local elections rub in this fact of weakness and how the former king's party reacts to it. Some of its MPs see coalition with the BSP as a deadly embrace for a right-of-centre party. Others see withdrawal from that embrace as a recipe for early parliamentary elections in which NMSP would perform disastrously.
The local elections come at a troubled time for the government, which has been faced over the last month with a remarkably stubborn national teachers' strike, involving very well-attended demonstrations, in support of a demand for a near doubling of wages.
Politically it's survived. The coalition has a majority of more than two thirds in the 240-seat parliament and it beat off a no-confidence vote over the teacher's strike on Tuesday, October 23 by 160 votes to 61. And a settlement well short of the teachers' demands seems to be in the offing at present. But what's granted will probably still be enough to encourage other public sector demands that the government won't be able to meet. Compounding this with the repercussions of the local election results, it may be a difficult winter.
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