Bulgaria's political left splinters ahead of EP elections

By bne IntelliNews January 27, 2014

Sandy Gill in Sofia -

There's trouble on Bulgaria's left. With European parliament (EP) elections, due on May 25, seen as an important test for the country's embattled Socialist-led government, three of the left's heavyweights have so far declared their intention to support an alternative leftist ticket.

There's Georgi Parvanov, leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) between 1997 and 2001, who was twice elected president with its support thereafter and made an unsuccessful bid for BSP leadership in 2012 when his presidential term was up. He's attempting to displace his erstwhile protégé and immediate BSP successor Sergei Stanishev. A fortnight ago, with a view to the EP elections, Parvanov announced the revival of the Alternative for Bulgarian Renaissance - "ABV" in Bulgarian - a leftist forum he had sponsored while still president, but that had been put on ice after a year.

There's also Ivaylo Kalfin, BSP-aligned rather than actually a member, a Parvanov adviser before he became foreign minister in the coalition government of 2005-2009 and thereafter, unsuccessfully, the BSP's presidential candidate in 2011. A notably capable Member of the European Parliament (MEP), he's lately been leader of the Bulgarian leftist group in the EP, a post from which he resigned earlier in January, citing a conflict between his ideas and the BSP leadership at home.

And there's Rumen Petkov, a political bruiser who has served as interior minister and as Parvanov's campaign manager. A tough organisation man, he's long been a power in the former communist BSP - though not enough of a power to prevent him being sidelined in the makeover-cum-purge that Stanishev conducted in advance of the May 2013 parliamentary elections. Petkov announced on January 20 that he was stepping down from the party chairmanship in his regional bastion of Pleven, promising a full statement of his position by the end of the month.

All three say they're continuing to work within the BSP, with the alternative platform just serving to "build new bridges" to left-wing voters. However, Stanishev doesn't see it quite like that. At a weekend BSP conference, Stanishev accused Kalfin of "grave political error" and political "schizophrenia," saying that those who worked with him were violating party rules - a hard line illustrated by exclusion from the conference of three regional party leaders who had not "made their position clear." The party executive has given ABV supporters a week to abandon the scheme of a separate ticket, or face expulsion from the BSP.

Another fine mess?

Perhaps discontent among leftists isn't surprising, since the BSP has got itself into a strange and uncomfortable situation. Elections last May, following the resignation of the ebullient and macho centre-right prime minister Boiko Borisov in the face of popular protests at high electricity bills, produced some very tricky parliamentary arithmetic. With no one willing to deal with Borisov or his GERB party - at 97 the largest contingent in the 240-seat parliament - the BSP and its ally the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) had exactly half the MPs between them. That forced them to rely in certain situations on the votes - or at least the benevolent abstention - of the extreme nationalist Ataka and its erratic leader Volen Siderov, a strange bedfellow for both Socialists and Turks.

Having come to power amid righteous indignation at apparent wiretapping and alleged vote-rigging by Borisov and his henchman, the interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the government quickly blotted its copy book by appointing controversial MP and media mogul Delyan Peevski, a kingpin of the DPS, as chief of a newly strengthened State Agency for National Security (DANS). This provoked mass demonstrations, which - even though the appointment was reversed within days - have carried on for months with the broader demand that the government, representing "oligarchic" interests, should resign. And a court ruling in October reinstating Peevski as an MP provoked a student occupation of Sofia University, followed by similar moves at other colleges.

Yet the government - headed by putative "technocrat" Plamen Oresharski rather than BSP party leader Stanishev - has stood firm against the demonstrations, showing no inclination to resign. Big protests are, for the moment, in abeyance, though the groups and networks formed in the process are now busily thinking up new strategies and policies. In parliamentary terms, the government doesn't seem under threat: two GERB MPs have gone independent, reducing the reliance on Ataka, while Ataka itself might not relish the nationalist competition it would face in the event of early elections.

Moreover, the BSP-led government has achievements of a sort under its belt. Oresharski, a less-than-charismatic finance expert, was able to boast that for the first time in years VAT refunds to the country's beleaguered businesses were complete by end-December. Flagging power exports, a serious problem for the previous Borisov government, have been revived by revamping price mechanisms. Two household electricity price cuts have been implemented - though arguably with grave potential consequences for the system's financial stability. And the government has undertaken what Vladimir Shopov, a Bulgarian political scientist who is no fan of the Oresharski cabinet, calls "the biggest social spending splurge in a decade."

Even so, the government just isn't popular. In December its approval rating fell below the psychologically crucial 20%. Those demonstrations may not have "succeeded" in the sense of getting rid of the government, but they've certainly struck a chord.

A poll early in December by Alfa Research - one of the country's least distrusted pollsters - found that 41% of Bulgarians wanted parliamentary elections as soon as possible and another 39% wanted them simultaneously with the EP elections in May. Another poll by Gallup International at around the same time found that over 20% of respondents were prepared to take part in demonstrations, implying that the protests could reignite impressively when appropriate.

And when the students occupied Sofia University, Alfa Research found that 60% of Bulgarians approved, with just 36% disapproving. Stanishev should be worried: when the stolid citizenry supports student sit-ins, one would think something's amiss. With the BSP having experienced more than one catastrophe in government since the fall of communism, some comrades might well be thinking, somewhat like Oliver Hardy, that Stan has "gotten them into a another fine mess."

Brussels pouts

It's not just internal disapproval that the BSP has to worry about. On January 22, the European Commission published its latest monitoring report under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), a device introduced in 2007 to track progress on judicial reform, corruption and organised crime issues in the iffy new member states of Bulgaria and Romania.

Overall, as expected, it wasn't favourable. It admitted that advances had been made in some areas and conceded that the consensus needed to achieve progress had not been helped by the fact that the country had had three governments in the last year. But it said that progress "is still insufficient and remains fragile." And, without naming names, it alluded to "appointments having to be aborted due to integrity issues" as one important problem. Some media have trotted out the stock epithet of "scathing."

Shopov's not impressed, though, arguing that Bulgarian politicians have become adept at dealing with EU reports, knowing how to put their own spin on such reports, to use the "noise" of diverse punditry and other news stories to dilute their impact. "The government started managing the impact of this one well beforehand - about a month before, they were saying it wouldn't be a good report," he says.

And though billed in advanced leaks from Brussels as politically explosive, the report itself proved, well, boring and failed to "join the dots". "Of the options available to the EC [European Commission] linguistically, it has gone for the most conservative and constrained one, the one providing least phrases for the opposition to latch onto," argues Shopov. "The Commission has chosen really sterile language to describe the appointment of Peevski. But it has also played down the massive significance of the big shift of power and functions from the Interior Ministry to DANS that took place at the same time. This was effectively the creation of a leviathan, making power in this sphere as concentrated as it has ever been in the post-communist period. But the EC has just talked in tedious administrative terms of functionality, redistribution of roles, smoothness of transition, and so on. And it's treated the questions of creating this leviathan and of who is to be put in charge of it as unconnected ones."

All in all, Shopov thinks, this report hasn't added much to Stanishev's problems. Especially, one might add, as Brussels also announced the same week, somewhat unexpectedly, that Bulgaria is ready for membership of the Schengen area - exclusion from which has long rankled with proud Bulgarians. True, member states have to approve this unanimously, which could be a problem. But a bit of good news always comes in handy.

Left wondering

Meanwhile, back on the left, those dissidents still have a lot to clarify. The highly articulate Kalfin has talked scathingly of "BSP compromises to stay in power" and of unfulfilled election promises, but so far hasn't been very specific on either criticisms or alternatives.

Parvanov has attacked Stanishev's leadership style, referring to "decisions taken within a narrow circle of initiates" and hinting at a "media umbrella" over the party leader and at personal responsibility of Stanishev for the decision to appoint Peevski.

Petkov has accused the BSP leadership of "misleading the voters," mentioning that they "lied about Belene [nuclear power plant], about the flat tax, and about the smoking ban."

Rescinding a complete ban on indoor smoking in public place had indeed been a BSP election promise - with proposals to that effect rejected late last year by parliament. Similarly, the DPS has blocked - or at least delayed - a BSP attempt to reintroduce progressive taxation. And the BSP's economy and energy minister, Dragomir Stoynev, has been pushing hard for a new reactor at the Kozlodui Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) using US technology, rather upstaging the BSP's aspirations to resuscitate the Russian-equipped Belene nuclear project, which was abandoned last year - and of which Parvanov had been a long-term champion.

Conspiracy theorists are having great fun. One theory is that the devious ex-communists are faking disagreements in order to present two faces to the world, with Stanishev (an aspiring EU commissioner, as he told the weekend's conference) looking to Brussels and ABV to Moscow and to Bulgaria's "red granny" traditionalists.

More popular, not least with Stanishev and friends, is the notion that it's all down to a secret deal with Borisov. Indeed, the editor of the Galeria weekly has said that she has a recording of a meeting at Borisov's house between him, Petkov and Purvanov, at which Borisov promised financing for ABV. However, she has not made this recording public so far.

Petkov has admitted that, at one stage, he talked to Borisov about Belene, but denies that ABV was mentioned. While Borisov, somewhat inconsistently, has said both that no such three-way meeting took place and that the authorities ought to go after "those who continue to turn my home into a Big Brother show." He's also wished both the BSP and ABV "bad luck," saying that the latter is not a possible cooperation partner. The only candidate for that role, he insists, is the Reformist Bloc, a grouping of right-wing parties that - in contrast to the fatally divided right's performance last May - looks as if it would comfortably clear the 4% threshold needed to enter parliament if elections were to be held soon. Whether Borisov would be so picky in practice is not clear.

Unclear also are ABV's chances of achieving much. With the BSP bizarrely intact 25 years after the fall of communism - while most former ruling parties had long ago fragmented at least into social democratic and radical left parties - breakaway and dissenting factions from the party don't have much of a track record. Parvanov has expressed hopes of getting two or three of Bulgaria's 17 MEPs, but most pundits are sceptical. Stanishev loyalist Anton Kutev remarked earlier in January that Parvanov's actions had transformed him from "eminence grise to political corpse." Well, maybe. There's a BSP Congress in February that might clarify things.

Meanwhile, one interesting question is whether ABV has any following within the Socialists' parliamentary group and whether than might impact on parliamentary arithmetic. Shopov is sceptical: "There are maybe five or six MPs that could be pro-Parvanov, but so far they're sitting on the fence," he notes. "And they've been through so much in the last seven months without rebelling that it's hard to see why they're going to jump ship now."

Such instincts of party unity could actually be harmful to the BSP, Shopov thinks. He's pretty sure that Parvanov is aiming to get a congenial protégé installed as BSP leadership rather than to create a separate formation. But he also reckons that if the BSP had any strategic sense, it would be looking to encourage the emergence of possible centre-left coalition partners. "The DPS has proved that it's not a coalition partner that can be trusted: it's just too greedy," says Shopov, "Hyperphagic!" he adds, referring to a medical condition involving morbid overeating. So there's a serious question of who could be a BSP partner after future parliamentary elections.

Poll positions

When those parliamentary elections will be remains to be seen. They're due in the summer of 2017, but could be much earlier - and possible scenarios don't all necessarily involve the present government being hounded out of office. "Parties will be looking at the EP election results and calculating accordingly," says Shopov.

Even the reliably volatile Ataka leader Volen Siderov may not be immune to such calculations. His latest scrape has been getting into an angry confrontation in Varna on January 6 with French cultural attaché Stephanie Dumortier, with the incident alleged to have involved minor injury to a police officer. What precisely happened is disputed, the subject of preliminary investigation, and therefore not a proper matter for comment here. And Siderov - after considerable delay and some pressure from the BSP and DPS - gave up his parliamentary immunity from prosecution on January 22. How all this will affect relations between the government and the nationalists remains to be seen. But it may not have done Siderov much harm with the constituency he's targeting, thinks Shopov, who also reckons that Ataka bid successfully in the competition between nationalists to be most extreme about Syrian refugees last autumn: "One of Siderov's colleagues was talking about cannibalism," he notes, "and you can't get much more extreme than that!"

As to the BSP, well, unpopular the government may be, but most pollsters still put the Socialists ahead of their main rival GERB. The Reformist Bloc is promising, but forging a real political force out of a historically fragmented and ego-ridden right is work in progress, and Shopov thinks that, electorally, the Bloc still isn't very much more than the sum of its parts. Shopov's sceptical about the chances of "Bulgaria Without Censorship", a curious populist group founded by a talk-show host from TV7 - a Peevski-aligned television channel - but some pollsters beg to differ.

And, above all, there's no "protest party" as yet. That's understandable, says Shopov: the protest leaders are generally party-averse, don't want to sacrifice their careers, don't want to be subjected to media battering, and see the co-opting of leading figures that took place after February's protests as ominous. But it might change: "two or three groups are thinking along party lines, and something might emerge as early as next month. Or might not," says Shopov.

So it's a complicated situation. The mess could yet prove a fine one for Stanishev.

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