Bulgarian parties gear up for election year

Spending EU funds - the best campaign promise

Bulgarian parties gear up for election year

The European Parliament elections this spring will be a grand rehearsal for the local elections in the autumn – and possibly a snap vote

Spending EU funds - the best campaign promise

© Krassimir Yuskesseliev

The year 2019 promises to be a torrid one for Bulgarian politics. Two sets of elections - for the European Parliament in May and for local government in September - will test the mettle of both the established and the budding political forces, as well as the stability of the third government of Boyko Borissov.

An unsavoury result for the ruling GERB party (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) or its nationalist partners, might trigger a political crisis and lead to a reshuffle among coalition partners or - albeit this is highly unlikely - early general elections.

The main challenger is the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) which rides on growing public discontent but has failed to reap dividends from the protest vote over the past five years. While GERB leader and Prime Minister Boyko Borissov is disapproved of by half of Bulgarians, according to Alpha Research poll data, his approval rating still far outstrips that of Socialist leader Kornelia Ninova.

The European Parliament elections will also test whether Bulgarians are turning against the EU. Although the European Union still enjoys overwhelming public support, every up-and-coming political project over the past decade has tapped Euroscepticism for its own ends. This has allowed populist forces to maintain a presence in Bulgaria's parliament, and now even in the government. Yet mainstream parties have always flopped when they have turned Eurosceptic. In 2017, the Socialists led an election campaign attacking the EU and democracy which, according to many analysts, forfeited public support and led to its resounding defeat.

How are parties preparing for this crucial year? True to form - by igniting various mundane scandals and controversies, flaunting their internal bickering and trying to rewrite election rules for their own advantage.

The Electoral Code debacle

Last-minute attempts to pass controversial amendments to the Electoral Code reveal many of the defects of the Bulgarian democratic process. It all began in mid-February when parliament hastily approved revisions to election rules in the middle of the night.

The amendments proposed by the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (MRF), the shadowy kingmaker of Bulgarian politics since the 1990s and nominally in opposition to the current government, sharply lifted the threshold of preferential votes any individual candidate has to win in order to move up their party list.

Bulgaria has a proportional electoral system whereby voters choose from candidates on party lists. Such a system gives a fairer representation of different political interests but also strengthens the power of party leaders who arrange the list. With the preferential system introduced a few years ago, voters can select their favourite candidate. The candidates who have attracted at least 5% of the votes needed to earn a seat in the National Assembly or the European Parliament can move to the top of their party list, ousting the candidate the party leaders had chosen. Until mid-February, 2000-3000 preferential votes were enough. Despite problems with the application of the rule, voters had grown accustomed to it.

Under amendments to the preferential voting system proposed by the MRF, the opportunity to move to the top of a party list is available only to candidates who have received as many preferential votes as the overall number of votes required to win a seat in their particular electoral district (or nationwide, for the MEP elections). This means that a candidate needs to receive about 15,000 votes or in the case of the European Parliament elections about 150,000 (the number is so high, because Bulgaria is regarded as a single electoral district).

The amendments ostensibly serve the large, centralized party structures, handing power to choose MPs over to party leaders rather than voters themselves. It is no surprise that GERB, as well as some of the nationalist parties and the populist Volya party, backed the proposed amendments.

The approval immediately drew fire, with the main opposition Socialists voicing their outrage and leaving parliament in protest. VMRO, the party led by Defense Minister and Vice-Premier Krasimir Karakachanov as well as the out-of-parliament coalition Democratic Bulgaria, joined the chorus against the changes. President Rumen Radev also opposed the amendments and immediately vetoed them.

Additionally, election observers immediately lambasted the outcome of the vote as harmful to Bulgarian democracy. The amendments blatantly violated international electoral blueprints, most notably those of the Venice Commission, the constitutional law advisory body of the Council of Europe, which has issued two reports (in 2014 and 2017) criticizing Sofia for changing election rules in the run-up to voting.

Resistance to the changes put GERB, and its leadership in particular, between a rock and a hard place. Prime Minister Borissov immediately announced that his party would amend the amendments. "GERB has frequently shown that it cares about popular opinion and is sensitive to public reactions to the lawmaking process in parliament," GERB's parliamentary group chairman Tsvetan Tsvetanov told the media. This volte face came just two days after he claimed the changes were a political compromise with the MRF that was necessary to maintain the stability of the government.

Yet the presidential veto had already been cast and the ruling coalition found itself in the awkward position of having to override it while simultaneously acknowledging it. By the time this issue of KQ had gone to print, there was still no clear indication what exactly the parliament would vote on. The debacle, however, exemplified various truths: the tacit symbiosis between GERB and MRF on vital issues; the rift between leading political parties and their voters who have supported preferential voting regardless of their political affiliation; and that elections rules (and elections themselves) in Bulgaria are still viewed mostly as tools for achieving specific results by entrenched powers rather than ensuring free and fair democratic expression.

Playing rough with opponents (and sometimes with allies)

But wait, there is more! Although the starting gun has not officially sounded, the election campaign has already opened with both big parties throwing dirt at each other. First, the Public Prosecutor's Office, which has not shied away from using its powers to influence elections, brought charges of money laundering against Elena Yoncheva, a member of parliament from BSP and probably the party's lead candidate for the European Parliament. The charges seem politically motivated and will probably backfire, increasing support for BSP, since Ms Yoncheva is seen as an anti-corruption fighter. She responded by releasing a recording of Minister of Culture Boil Banov excusing a fine imposed on a contractor of an EU-financed project. Ms Yoncheva has been the bane of Mr Borissov's premiership since releasing a report about poorly built components of the anti-migrant razor wire fence on the border with Turkey - a project much lauded as a success by GERB and their nationalist allies.

And it's not only MPs from BSP who have been targeted by the prosecutor's office. Five other MPs were recently charged with abuse of office in a move seen as a blow against political opponents of the government and a belated response to public calls for effective anti-corruption policies. At the same time, GERB and MRF are never under suspicion, as the case of Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov recently showed. He was briefly investigated for conflict of interest for living for free in an expensive apartment provided to him by his well-connected godfather Ivan Sariev. The case was quickly dropped on procedural grounds, although Mr Sariev who used to be Grand Master of one of Bulgaria's two Masonic lodges has struck real estate deals with four influential MPs from GERB.

Internal qualms

With elections drawing nearer, most political parties have dissolved into vicious infighting.

Within BSP, reactionary and populist forces have dragged the party towards conservative nativism. This has prompted weird and awkward situations, including a requirement for MEP candidates to declare their opposition to the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Children. According to those forces, the convention threatens family values in Bulgaria. Yet the proposed requirement is, in fact, a Machiavellian attempt to prevent the leader of the Party of European Socialists (PES), Sergey Stanishev, from running for MEP again. Mr Stanishev, a former Bulgarian PM and ex-leader of BSP, supports the convention.

While the ultranationalists from the United Patriots alliance, the junior partner of GERB in the government coalition, likewise oppose the Istanbul Convention, they are engaged in constant reshuffling, vociferous public scandals and factionalism. It is very unlikely they will reconcile for any of the upcoming elections this year. But they would likely cling on to power in an attempt to fully capitalize on their presence in government.

Lastly, the liberal centrists from the Democratic Bulgaria coalition enjoy a relative rise in popularity as the various factions representing the so-called democratic community came together for the European Parliament vote. But they are balancing on shaky ground because of potential clashes over the arrangement of party lists. Their position might become more precarious still depending on what preferential voting rules are applied. Currently, Democratic Bulgaria seems to hope that voters will themselves arrange their election list, making the decision for the leading place on the list not so important.

Is Euroscepticism really on the rise?

Openly pro-EU positions have been unfashionable in Bulgaria over recent years. This is a trend in most EU Member States, except for Scandinavian countries. However, the crescendo in social media sometimes leaves the feeling that Euroscepticism is the prevailing mood among Bulgarians.

GERB, usually seen as the flagship pro-EU party in the country, has been increasingly using nationalist-populist rhetoric. For GERB the EU is mainly responsible for re-allocating funds to poorer Member States, which helped Bulgaria rapidly improve its infrastructure - a success much-cherished by Mr Borissov. The access to the EU fund is one of the reasons GERB hasn't slid down to the anti-EU path, although the Bulgarian PM is a fan of the Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban.

BSP, for their part, are acting as a mirror image of the ruling party, throwing anti-globalist, anti-liberal messages here and there, including in their much-lauded electoral manifesto.

The nationalist parties are jumping on the now modern bandwagon of conservativism and "Europe of Nations", as well as on a segregationist "Roma integration plan" to galvanize their core electorate. But this will amount to little if they don't join hands - which is rather unlikely. In a nutshell, most political parties are practising who will shout loudest when damning everybody else.

Practically, the sole unabashedly pro-EU party is the small liberal coalition Democratic Bulgaria.

This political cleavage creates almost perfect conditions to test the real stance of most Bulgarians. Democratic Bulgaria's performance will show how important the slogan of "European values" is as opposed to GERB's more cynical views of the EU as money distributing organization that shouldn't mess around its Member States internal affairs and BSP's increasingly anti-European stance.

Dr Helene Kortländer, head of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung office in Bulgaria: Push for early elections doesn't seem promising

What was the major political event in Bulgaria in the last quarter?

The controversy around the resignation of deputy PM Valeri Simeonov as it revealed the intrinsic instability of the governing coalition. The United Patriots' institutional logic requires them to overstep democratic boundaries because without this kind of provocation they would become insignificant. On the other hand, it showed PM Boyko Borissov's firm intention to complete his term this time - even if meaningful politics are not possible any more. In light of this the current political push by the opposition for early parliamentary elections does not seem very promising.

What do you expect to be the major development in the forthcoming quarter or further?

The European Parliament elections in May, since they will serve as a barometer on the public mood on a range of issues. Not only towards the main Bulgarian parties, but also on the question of "how much Europe" Bulgarians actually want and how much the antiliberal, anti-European rhetoric that has become rather dominant in the political sphere has caught on. A good turnout would also be a signal that there is still hope for progress being brought about by the EU and democratic institutions in general and that this hope prevails over the frustration with politics and the widespread feeling that "it makes no difference whom we vote for anyway".

Dr Helene Kortländer heads the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung office in Bulgaria. She is a political scientist and previously worked for the FES in Israel and Berlin.

First election expectations

Democratic Bulgaria has the chance to send one MEP to Strasbourg, according to a poll of polls commissioned by the European Parliament and conducted by Kantar Public on 25 February.

As for the big parties, they are expected to shift slightly to the left, with BSP projected to add two seats to its current four, while GERB could gain one more to reach a total of seven. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms, member of the liberal ALDE alliance, is projected to lose two of its four seats, while nationalist coalition United Patriots and Volya party could win up to two seats each. The polls, however, do not take into account the votes of Bulgarians residing abroad which tend to tilt the result in favor of MRF and - to a lesser extent - of GERB. It is already clear that the candidates of the parties of the United Patriots alliance will not run on the same list.

Author: Capital
Author: Capital
Author: Capital

The year 2019 promises to be a torrid one for Bulgarian politics. Two sets of elections - for the European Parliament in May and for local government in September - will test the mettle of both the established and the budding political forces, as well as the stability of the third government of Boyko Borissov.

An unsavoury result for the ruling GERB party (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) or its nationalist partners, might trigger a political crisis and lead to a reshuffle among coalition partners or - albeit this is highly unlikely - early general elections.

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