Sandy Gill in Sofia -
It's now over two years since charismatic former top cop and "action man" Boiko Borisov stormed into the Bulgarian premiership, leading the party he had created to a plurality in parliamentary elections. Now GERB - the Bulgarian acronym for "Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria - faces its first electoral test.
On October 23, there will be the first round of elections, not only for municipal administrations, but also for what is nominally the country's top job, the less-than-executive but more-than-ceremonial presidency. It's a post that carries important powers of suspensory legislative veto and appointment, as well as significant functions in the fields of diplomacy and security. So it's some prize.
With registrations closed in September and 18 presidential pairs in the running, there are some colourful candidates. There's Volen Siderov, the temperamental leader of the extreme nationalist Ataka party, who made the run-off in 2006 but is languishing at around 4% of the electorate this time, partly thanks to an unseemly fracas outside Sofia's main mosque this summer. There's Aleksei Petrov, the former security official who's been labelled an underworld mastermind by the interior minister. And there's Daniela Simindzhieva, vice-presidential candidate and the woman with the world's highest IQ - at least according to her running mate, nationalist Krasimir Karakachanov.
But in practice, the field seems to consist of three candidates, the only ones, according to a mid-September poll by the local Mediana agency, with the support of more than 4% of respondents. These are the GERB-backed candidate Rosen Plevneliev (29.1%), the left's man Ivailo Kalfin (21.9%), and the independent Meglena Kuneva (14.1%). Barring surprises - including the surprise of someone getting over 50% of the vote in the first round - two of these three will contest a run off contest thereafter.
Mediana's percentages are probably accurate in making Kuneva the least likely winner of the three. Bulgaria's chief negotiator in the EU accession process, she's generally acknowledged to have done much to complete that process by the end-2006 deadline. Thereafter, she had the prestige of being Bulgaria's first European commissioner - for consumer protection - a job which she performed with distinction, energy and assertiveness. She's widely recognised (not least by herself) to be immensely capable.
But her problems are two-fold. First, there's a widespread perception, justified or not, that she's Brussels' woman, not Bulgaria's - giving too much away in negotiations even before she got her post there. Second, she has no party backing: though she was first brought to office by Simeon Saxe-Coburg, former king and prime minister between 2001 and 2005, she's standing independently of the "king's party" - which nowadays lacks influence anyway.
Contrast Kalfin, who, while not technically a member of the former communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), certainly has its backing. And that's not all he has. A respected professional economist who also served four years as foreign minister (2005-2009), a former member of the Bulgarian parliament (1997-2001) and a current MEP (since 2009), Kalfin also has inside experience of the presidency, having served as senior adviser to outgoing president Purvanov. So he's formidably well qualified.
And his candidacy appears to have been boosted by the nomination as his running mate of former culture minister Stefan Danailov, communist-era heart-throb and star of wholesomely partisan films - who will certainly mobilise a "nostalgia vote" (and has some exposure at present as a star in the popular TV series "House of Glass").
However, Kalfin has two disadvantages. First, he lacks charisma. And second, being a leftist - albeit a very moderate one - he will tend to unite non-leftists against him in a run-off.
Which leaves Plevneliev, who was nominated by the ruling party on September 4 - after months of speculation about who would run, in which prime ministerial denials wouldn't quite scotch the suspicion that Borisov might go for the job himself.
Plevneliev's impressive. A construction engineer who went to Germany with nothing in the 1990s, he soon became a sub-contractor for the heavyweight German firm Lindner. Then, in 1998, returned to establish Lindner Bulgaria, in which capacity he built and managed Business Park Sofia - an early and iconic development in Bulgaria's real-estate boom. Appointed as regional development minister when Borisov came to power in 2009, he has distinguished himself from all his predecessors by his conspicuous ability actually to get motorways built. On this basis, Plevneliev has enjoyed high approval ratings in opinion polls - latterly even higher than the rating-hungry prime minister himself.
Plevneliev's vice-presidential partner is formidable too. A prosecutor since 1990 - and at one stage the official responsible for going after EU funds fraud - Margarita Popova has been another leading light of Borisov's cabinet as justice minister. She's also enjoyed high ratings and, perhaps more important, golden opinions in Brussels for her efforts to reform the judiciary, one of Bulgaria's most Euro-problematic sectors.
A dream ticket, then? Perhaps, but several reservations should be mentioned.
Checks and balances
First, they are GERB candidates and one function of the presidency is to act as a check on the government - notably by exercising a delaying veto on legislation they think unwise or unconstitutional. Admittedly, Bulgarian presidents tend to end up usefully awkward whether or not they come from the ruling party. But there's quite a widespread feeling that they should come from another party or be independents - 47% of those polled by Mediana thought so.
Second, it may be doubted - and doubted by some voters, not just by journalists - how responsible it is to remove two of your best ministers for posts that, while important, don't obviously correspond to their special abilities. Popova's choice has been said to underline the importance of judicial reform, a task that is far from completed. Yet there's not much in the vice-president's job description that connects it with judicial reform.
As to Plevneliev, he's a technocrat, whose political experience is confined to what he's picked up as minister. In itself that's a recommendation to many, but it could show him up badly during the campaign in comparison with the worldly wise Kalfin - and it may not qualify him all that well for what it after all a political office.
Third, though Plevneliev enjoys a "Mr Clean" image that is very probably justified, his background as first businessman and then minister in one of the most sleaze-ridden sectors of the Bulgarian economy makes it very probable that allegations will out during the campaign that can't be very swiftly scotched. One already has: that, back in his Business Park Sofia days, he was approached for a €500,000 bribe by some local power brokers and, while he didn't pay it, he didn't report the approach to the relevant authorities either. It remains to be seen whether there is more.
And fourth, Plevneliev arguably has friends of a sort that make enemies quite superfluous. The story of the "bribe that never was" actually came from the head of GERB's own campaign staff, Tsvetan Tsvetanov - long-term aide to Borisov, current interior minister and, interestingly, himself once tipped as presidential candidate - who was, at least ostensibly, trying to make the point that Plevneliev was an honest businessman who would never take a bribe.
Borisov also has an uncanny knack for putting down those he should be talking up. Commenting on Plevneliev's nomination, he noted that his real preference had been for Tsvetanov, but that they had agreed he was needed at the interior ministry. Borisov also remarked that he himself might well stand for president at the next elections in 2016 - somewhat tactlessly pre-empting the question of whether Plevneliev might merit a second term. Besides this, the prime minister commented disparagingly on Plevneliev's first campaign clip. Borisov incidentally also saw fit to commend Plevneliev and Popova to the voters by noting that they are "the only ones to tell me straight in the face when they disagree with me", which, logically, didn't say much for the rest of his cabinet!
The conspiracy-minded might see all this in terms of the prime ministerial ego asserting itself against an unwelcome rival for public affections - and the prime minister's alter ego Tsvetanov reacting to disappointment. That's probably overdoing things. But with almost five weeks to go till polling day, who knows what other gaffes may emerge.
Meanwhile, it's not only "friendly fire" that Plevneliev needs to fear. At least till the first round is over, Plevneliev'll be everyone's favourite target. Not only that of the BSP and the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms - which have been in opposition to him in parliament from the start - but also that of the three right-of-centre formations there that had originally favoured him, Ataka, the scurrilously conservative Order Law and Justice (OLJ) party, and the traditional anti-communist right of the Blue Coalition. The government had to fight two confidence motions over the summer, though it survived both.
And issues won't be lacking over the next month or so. For instance, the curious sight of an interior minister acting as an election campaign chief will allow variations on a theme already being played by both left and right - that the police are too powerful under Borisov. Kalfin, moreover, looks like playing two "energy cards", criticising GERB for countenancing controversial shale gas development and for fumbling the issue of the proposed Belene nuclear power plant - both questions on which the Kalfin position has a fair degree of public support.
That said, GERB is in reasonable shape for a party halfway through its incumbency. Regarding hypothetical parliamentary elections, pollsters still put it several percentage points ahead of the BSP. Its parliamentary contingent is strikingly intact, defying the normal tendency for governing parties to fragment and factionalise. Its MPs have shown almost no tendency to independent voting. It has the consistent support of a block of a dozen independent MPs that have defected from Ataka and OLJ, freeing GERB from what was, at one stage, a disreputable dependence on Ataka. And, whatever the reservations, the Plevneliev-Popova ticket is an impressive one - and will probably be the winner.
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