Battle for Sofia divides Bulgaria’s ruling coalition

Battle for Sofia divides Bulgaria’s ruling coalition
Vasil Terziev giving a speech during his election campaign for Sofia mayor.
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia October 31, 2023

Boyko Borissov, the leader of the Gerb party, has indirectly called on his supporters to vote for the candidate of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), Vanya Grigorova, in the runoff of the local elections in the capital Sofia. 

Grigorova is standing against the candidate of Change Continues-Democratic Bulgaria (CC-DB), Vassil Terziev, who is expected to win the vote. As the runoff pits the BSP and CC-DB candidates each other, Gerb’s hopes of continuing its nearly 20-year control of the capital ended when its candidate was placed third in the first round. Still, Borissov’s position came as a surprise as Gerb is partnering with CC-DB in government.

The CC-DB-backed candidate for mayor won the first round of the elections with 31.8% of votes versus 21.6% for Grigorova. That puts Terziev in a strong position to take control of Sofia. Gerb’s Anton Hekimyan, a former journalist, was on 17.8%.

It’s personal 

The struggle for Sofia is a personal one for Borissov, who started his political career as mayor of the capital. On becoming prime minister, he was succeeded by Gerb member Yordanka Fandakova, who is ending her fourth term now. 

During Gerb’s two decades in control of Sofia, there were numerous scandals related to renovation of key areas of the capital that were made with poor quality and needed repeated repairs immediately after their completion.

Borissov alluded to the scandals in his comments after the first round of voting. 

“As Anton Hekimyan said, better state property than state security,” he said.

He was referring to Terziev, whose father and uncle were members of the communist regime’s State Security, which spied on people opposing the regime.

Terziev, one of the most popular IT experts in Bulgaria, has apologised for being the son of a person connected to the communist regime and is openly pro-Western. 

He set up the Telerik Academy Foundation, securing free national education programmes aimed at providing Bulgarian students with modern IT training to prepare them for the digital professions of the future.

Borissov accused CC-DB of refusing to join forces for the local elections and said his party will not back the coalition as CC-DB had not agreed to support its candidates in the runoffs either.

Gerb-SDS and CC-DB agreed on June 1 to back a joint government with a rotating prime minister. Despite not being natural allies, the two largest formations in Bulgaria’s parliament have common ground as they are both pro-Western, and struck a deal to end years of political instability in the country. 

Now, however, Gerb is backing Grigorova, who has been an open supporter of Bulgaria’s warmer relations with Russia. Grigorova has criticised Bulgaria for joining sanctions against Russia and the decision not to pay Gazprom for its gas in rubles.

At the same time, Grigorova claims to fight for the rights of workers and for equality, and backs the nationalisation of private companies. 

Voting machines return for runoffs

Meanwhile, the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) ruled that the voting machines should be used in the second round of the local elections. They were controversially scrapped by the central election body, CIK, at the last moment before the first round of the local elections. 

The CIK made the decision following a questionable claim by several political parties that there was a report by the national security agency (DANS) that the vote might be compromised.

The attack on machine voting was seen as a last-minute effort by political parties set to lose the elections to boost their chances to influence on the results by increasing the share of bribed voters. Unlike paper ballots, machine votes cannot be declared invalid or replaced by fake ballots.

The SAC did not, however, rule that the CIK was wrong to scrap the machines for the first round of voting and advised Minister of e-Government Aleksandar Yolovski to personally authorise the voting machines. Previously, that task was assigned to his deputy, Mihail Stoynov.

Videos and documents posted on Facebook showed how members of election committees are falsifying election protocols to give an advantage to specific candidates. For example, in a video from one election committee in Sofia a female voice says that there are 120 votes for Terziev. However, the protocol from that committee reads there are 120 votes for Hekimyan versus zero for Terziev.

Another video shows how members the election committee in a small village agreeing between each other to falsify ballots to help three people to enter the local council. The prosecution will probe that case.