Branimir Kondov in Sofia -
A technocrat nominated by the ruling right-of-centre GERB party fell short of an outright victory in the first round of Bulgaria's presidential elections on Sunday, October 23 and will face a former foreign minister and current member of the European Parliament backed by opposition Socialists in a runoff on October 30, exit polls indicated.
In an election day that was calm, with occasional cases of suspected vote buying and irregularities concerning improper registration of voters exposed by the local media, Rosen Plevneliev, a businessman from the construction sector who served as successful regional development minister since 2009 when GERB ousted from power a tripartite Socialist-led coalition, won 40-41% of Sunday's vote, according to exit polls conducted by three polling agencies. To win outright, the frontrunner needed the support of more than half of the valid votes, provided that more than 50% of all registered voters cast ballots.
Ivailo Kalfin, who unlike Plevneliev has strong experience in Bulgarian politics as foreign minister in the former Socialist-led coalition, a MEP and former political advisor to outgoing President Georgi Parvanov, came second with 27-30% support.
Meglena Kuneva, who was the first Bulgarian member of the European Commission after the country joined the EU in 2007 and was running as an independent fielded by a nomination committee, was third with 14-15% and is leaving the race. So will Volen Siderov, leader of staunchly nationalist Ataka Party, who mustered around 4% support, while the candidate of right-wing Blue Coalition Rumen Hristov won around 3%. The rest of the 18 candidates in the race for president scored even lower.
The vote for president, a largely ceremonial post in Bulgaria, was held simultaneously with elections for mayors and local governments and is seen as a popularity test for GERB and its leader Prime Minister Boiko Borisov halfway through the party's first term in office marked by economic downturn, sluggish recovery and spending cuts.
Polsters say Prime Minister Borisov continues to enjoy one of the highest approval ratings among Bulgarian politicians despite dwindling household incomes and rising unemployment, because of his policies capitalising on improving absorption of EU funds, the stepping up of major infrastructure projects and the maintaining of political and financial stability in one of EU's poorest countries amidst the Eurozone debt crisis.
A victory for Plevneliev will mean GERB will conquer yet another position at the top of the state administration in which the party already controls the posts of parliament speaker and prime minister. "These elections were important to see the vote of the people - whether what we are doing should go on in the same direction. As of today, GERB's responsibility has doubled," Borisov told reporters after polls closed. "This vote is a vote of confidence in this government."
On the dark side, however, were the findings of the election observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe released prior to the vote. The OSCE said it had concerns about potential vote buying, possible manipulation during vote counts and a perception that election commissions were dominated by GERB.
While admitting that Bulgaria's new election code adopted earlier this year "provides a sound legal basis for the conduct of democratic elections," the OSCE noted that "there is room for improvement regarding the use of mother tongue by minorities during campaigning, the possibility for vote recount and the rules for campaigning in media." According to some of OSCE's local contacts, the accuracy of voter lists also raised concerns, as 6.97m people were registered to vote for president out of Bulgaria's population of 7.36m measured in the latest census held in February 2011.
The OSCE's finding that "the issue of vote buying appears to be of great concern for all segments of society" was confirmed by a survey commissioned by Transparency without Borders, an NGO. The survey conducted in mid-October among 1,000 respondents showed that nearly one in every five Bulgarians was ready or inclined to trade in their vote - simply to make some more money for everyday living, or out of fear of losing their jobs, especially in smaller towns and villages. The results of the survey unveiled by the NGO at a news conference the previous week showed that the number of those ready to sell their votes has doubled to 12% in the current campaign, compared with the 2009 parliamentary elections, while a further 7% were ready to cast ballots for whoever paid a bigger price. "Despite recent amendments to the Criminal Code and the Elections Code and the public awareness campaign held by the authorities against vote buying the prosecutor general has expressed concerns about not having sufficient legal tools to investigate and prosecute vote buying," OSCE said.
According to a survey conducted by Bulgaria's National Centre for the Study of Public Opinion in mid-October, Plevneliev would win 45% of the vote in the second round, with possible help from supporters of the Blue Coalition and Ataka, while Kalfin would get 29%, drawing additional support from mainly ethnic Turk party DPS, a junior partner of the Socialists in the previous coalition government, while Kuneva's supporters did not say whether they would back any of the two contenders in the runoff.
In the previous presidential elections held in 2006, Parvanov was re-elected for a second and final five-year term of office with 75.9% of the vote in a runoff against Siderov who got 24.1%.
For comparison, in the 2009 parliamentary election GERB won 39.7% of the vote, followed by the Socialists with 17.7% and DPS with 14.5%.
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