BULGARIA VOTES: A close-run thing?

By bne IntelliNews May 10, 2013

Sandy Gill in Sofia -

If Bulgarians stay away from the parliamentary elections to be held this Sunday, May 12, it won't be because they see the results as a foregone conclusion. With mouthy and macho Boiko Borisov - premier till he stepped down in March - facing a challenge from righteously indignant socialist Sergei Stanishev, the pollsters agree that the margin between their respective parties has shrunken markedly in the last month or so. And, with surveys much less consistent about the support enjoyed by smaller parties, those who are - or think they are - near the 4% threshold that qualifies formations to enter parliament would seem to have everything to play for.

Though Borisov tendered his resignation in February in the face of mass protests provoked by high electricity bills - and broadening into expressions of systemic discontent with "monopolies" and "the mafia" - this was seen by many as a shrewd (or cynical) step to limit damage and avoid unpopularity. His formation, Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria, or "GERB", certainly didn't have the ratings you'd expect from a party that had left power with its tail between its legs.

According to Sofia-based pollster AFIS, GERB had enjoyed the support of 28.7% of Bulgarians - or 40.3% of those intending to vote - back in March. That support has dropped drastically: an AFIS survey early this month showed the respective figures as 21.8% and 31.6%.

The reasons are various. In terms of economic policy, GERB has campaigned on a platform of tight budget discipline; of ability to make use of EU regional, industrial and agricultural funds to ensure economic development; of its prowess in road-building; and of increasing jobs and incomes only on the basis of sound economic growth. That may have been a bit tame in a situation where unemployment has hit 12% - and, according to a recent survey by Sofia's Centre for Analyses and Marketing (CAM), is identified as the main problem by almost 58% of Bulgarians.

But bugs may explain a lot too: since end-March, Borisov and his top henchman Tsvetan Tsvetanov have been plagued by increasingly lurid revelations about illegal eavesdropping and other murky doings: CAM's figures suggest that 8% had either changed their voting intentions as a result or might do so. With the word "mafia" prominent among the chants during February's protests, indications of mafia-like behaviour won't have helped.

The gap between GERB and its nearest rival, Stanishev's Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), has narrowed greatly: according to local pollster Sova Harris, it's now less than 1 percentage point of those intending to vote, while AFIS puts it at around 3.3 percentage points. But that reflects Borisov's loss more than Stanishev's gain: according to AFIS, the BSP share of those intending to vote rose from 25.8% in March to 28.3% in May - and was even less in absolute terms since non-voters had risen from 28.7% to 31% of those surveyed. Again, different reasons may be surmised. Aversion to ex-communists - a card played relentlessly by Borisov - isn't negligible. And, though Stanishev has been promising 250,000 new jobs, he hasn't been very specific as to where they're going to come from.

So if the BSP hasn't benefited all that much, who has?

Music to Bulgarian ears

One thing is for sure, it's not "the protestors". Though several parties arising from February's protests are competing in the elections - and though one poll back in March showed potential support of 14% for a hypothetical "protest party" - only one protest-based formation is showing up on the pollsters' radar: that's the People's Voice party of popular musician Svetlyo Vitkov, which might get 1% if it's lucky.

It would also appear that the extreme nationalist Ataka, which piggy-backed on the protests without really influencing them, has fallen back somewhat: AFIS puts its share of the vote at 10.2% in March, but just 8.4% in May - though that still comfortably ensures it a place in parliament.

Another "shoo-in" for parliament - but one that may have benefitted from the campaign - is the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), whose share of votes is reckoned by AFIS to have risen from 6.7% in March to 8.7% in May. Having the advantage of being firmly anti-Borisov but non-socialist in outlook, this may have expanded support beyond its normally quite stable and mainly ethnic Turkish electorate. It has also probably benefitted from the absence of the wily and unpopular Ahmed Dogan from its ticket: he stepped down after 23 years at the helm in January.

Who else, apart from these four, will enter parliament is a moot point, not least among pollsters. Sova Harris thinks there could be either four parties or five, while AFIS calculates that there could be as few as five or as many as eight.

Most pollsters put the right-of-centre Bulgaria of its Citizens Movement (BCM) of former European Commissioner Meglena Kuneva - a politician more brainy than charismatic - as either likely to get in or "on the cusp". But she's lost rather than gained from a lacklustre campaign, which has also seen divisions in, and significant defections from, BCM: according to AFIS, her share of those likely to vote fell from 6.3% in March to 4.9% in early May.

There could also be surprises, as voters - especially anti-socialist voters - consider their position in the light of the bugging scandal, creating what could be a fluid situation. AFIS spotlights two, though they seem little fancied by other pollsters. The Order, Law and Justice (OLJ) party is an avowedly "conservative" formation flamboyantly led by Yane Yanev and much given to denouncing corruption (with a nice sideline in conspiracy theories): dismissed by many, it has doubled its share of the vote to 5.2% in the last couple of months, according to AFIS. The National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria - a newish hardline nationalist formation - has made even more spectacular progress, according to AFIS, rising from 1.8% to 4.8%, maybe explaining where some of those Ataka votes have gone. And, at 3% - up from 1.5% - even the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB) coalition, led by former premier Ivan Kostov, might still benefit from a last-minute surge, though its chances are discounted by most.

And it's not quite clear that, once announced, the results will be uncontested. One opinion poll last month - which spoke well at least for Bulgarians' frankness - revealed that no less than 11% of the electorate would consider selling their votes. Accusations on that count won't be lacking. And, in parallel with the bugging scandal, there's been a barrage of allegations that GERB will use its entrenched positions in the interior ministry to rig the voting. Apart from a battalion of outside observers, GERB's main rivals - in a rare show of unity including even Ataka - have gone so far as to hire an Austrian firm to do a "parallel count" on the day. A somewhat pointless expense, some say, since the Austrians will be operating at regional centres while the real chicanery would take place at polling stations. It's unlikely to quell doubts.

Hard to get together

Meanwhile, even undisputed voting results wouldn't yield clear and immediate political conclusions. One thing that's clear from all polls is that no one will have anything approaching a majority in Bulgaria's 240-seat parliament.

The smart money says GERB will get rather shy of 100 MPs - possibly more like 90. If it's still ahead of the BSP, it will automatically have first crack at forming a government under the country's constitution. Whether it would get the necessary support to form a minority or even a coalition government is very doubtful: so much energy has been expended on GERB-bashing - and with so much success - over the last six weeks that it's hard to see how most of the other parties could creditably do a deal. The combined support of Ataka and OLJ - assuming the latter entered parliament - might, just might, put Borisov back in office. And it's conceivable that Kostov could guardedly be well-disposed to GERB. But the resultant government would be precarious and unpopular.

As to other parties, both the BSP and the MRF have ruled out a coalition with GERB in tones sufficiently shrill to suggest that they mean it. They've been talking of a "programme government" - broad, defined by a definite agenda, and dominated by technocrats rather than politicians - and MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan has made it clear that Plamen Oresharski, the BSP's preferred premier though not himself a BSP member, would be technocratic enough for his party. The parliamentary arithmetic is problematic, however: it's hard to see the Bulgarian nationalists of Ataka cutting deals either with the "communist" BSP or with the ethnic Turks of the MRF. And Kuneva's position, so far, is that, if she's going to take part in a government, it will be one that she herself forms.

Meanwhile, urgent problems are calling. The caretaker government of Marin Raykov is at present wrestling with overcapacity in the energy sector that's leading to short time at the country's lignite mines and probably illegal curtailments of its renewables capacity. And it's trying to find a way to avoid electricity price hikes in a tariff revision due mid-year, where energy companies' proposals add up to 15-20%. With electricity the cause of February's protests, it's not just parliamentary arithmetic that's problematic. All of which could be a reason for Bulgaria's politicians to sink differences and address the country's problems. Or could be a reason for them to haver, and leave it to Raykov.

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