Five months. This is how long Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandakova needs in order to become the longest-serving mayor ever of Bulgaria's capital. Currently, this accolade belongs to the city's pre-Second World War mayor Ivan Ivanov. A reformist and able architect, his term in office (1934-1944) was marked by the construction of many landmark buildings and infrastructure projects that transformed the capital into a modern European city.
Ms Fandakova will have the unique chance to outperform her historic predecessor if she wins the battle for Sofia in Bulgaria's local elections at the end of October. Her legacy, after nine-and-a-half years in office (and a total of 14 years of her party, GERB, dominating in Sofia), however, will complicate her task. What is more, for the first time she will have a serious contender blocking her path to the history books, ex-Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) spearhead and state ombudsman Maya Manolova. While Ms Manolova - who comes with her own mixed legacy - will have a hard time convincing Sofia's traditionally right-wing voters to back her nomination - it is not impossible to imagine that she may muster enough protest votes to make a breakthrough in the capital.
Bearing in mind that the ascendancy of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and his GERB party started from Sofia's mayoral seat in 2005, a potential victory of the ex-ombudsman in the capital might pave the way for a further long-term shake-up of Bulgarian politics.
What is at stake?
The Bulgarian capital is byfar the single most important city in the country. Boasting a GDP per capita of close to 15,000 euro - or twice the average for the country - Sofia is the richest city in the country, attracting both domestic and international migrants. Officially, the population of the capital has hit 1.27 million people as of the end of 2018, or more than a sixth of Bulgaria's total. The city boasts a massive budget of 900 million euro in 2019, up 150 million euro on year-on-year.
At the same time, Sofia's size comes with serious problems - poor infrastructure repair works due to public procurement always falling to a syndicate of politically well-connected companies; monopolies or oligopolies in the utilities sector, most notably in heating, water supply and garbage collection; traffic congestion and an underdeveloped public transportation system. In addition, certain districts that are already overcrowded have suffered from overdevelopment; the city has insufficient kindergartens and last, but not least - Sofia has poor air quality in the winter.
While it is hard to deny some of Ms Fandakova's achievements - primarily the successful development of the Sofia metro system (there is little surprise that the mayor launched her bid for a fourth term at a soon-to-open metro line), her administration has suffered from a series of blunders in addressing many of these issues. These include a series of extortionately expensive and botched repairs of key streets, most recently the infamous reconstruction of Graf Ignatiev Str. (mis)carried out by G.P. Group, a long-time darling company of GERB.
While the metro lines have been expanding, little has been done in terms of opening new surface routes and introducing enough buses and trolleys. Some key tram lines have even been decommissioned. Furthermore, very little has been done to tackle air pollution and finding more places in kindergartens. And when it comes to real estate developments - let's say that in 2017 GERB lost Mladost, one of the largest districts of the city - to a single issue candidate opposing further construction of tall buildings.
What is different this time around?
Many of these problems are old news for Sofianites, so why vote out Ms Fandakova right now? If this happens, it will be the product of a specific alignment of the stars that was impossible four or eight years ago.
Ms Fandakova's candidacy has suffered not only from her perceived failure to address these ills, but from the waning popularity of GERB as well. The rulling party was hit by a series of real estate scandals in March-April this year and has failed to cope with several crises more recently, including an outbreak of African swine fever and a data breach at the National Revenue Agency that affected the better part of Bulgaria's working-age population.
The second - and arguably more important - factor - is that this time around she has a serious opponent.
In normal circumstances, Maya Manolova would have looked like a strange independent candidate for mayor of Sofia. She has a left-wing background, while Sofia has never elected a BSP-related mayor in its post-socialist history. What is more, she was one of the spearheads of BSP, who was involved in a series of controversies in the party's most recent history, including her defence of the Oresharski government (2013-2014). Ms Manolova was at the centre of a pre-election hoax in 2013 when she claimed GERB was trying to falsify the results of the vote (all allegations were subsequently refuted), she stood behind the appointment of media mogul and member of parliament from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms Delyan Peevsky as head of the National Security Agency and opposed the mass protesters against him. When at the time protestors asked rhetorically "WHO?" appointed Mr Peevski, Ms Manolova contemptuously responded, "If this will make you calm down, I nominated Delyan Peevski."
This background will be a hard pill to swallow for Sofia voters, who have two other candidates to choose from in the first round of the election on October 27 - Borislav Ignatov, an architect nominated by Democratic Bulgaria out-of-parliament opposition force, and Boris Bonev, an activist from the Save Sofia movement, an organization that has gained popularity through its criticism of flaws in the Sofia Municipality's work.
Unfortunately, their attempts to launch a productive debate about the management and future of the city have hit a brick wall in an environment dominated by Ms Manolova's loud populist rhetoric and the smear campaign spread against them waged by pro-government brown media. Mr Bonev's organization was dubbed "Suck Sofia" by the website pik.bg, which also published intimate photos of Mr Ignatov's girlfriend, that shocked even the ardent political donors of the website.
Given the unlikely prospect of Mr Ignatov and Mr Bonev attracting a majority of the votes, the hard question for their supporters in a potential the second round of the election in Sofia will be if they are ready to make a colossal compromise in the form of casting a ballot for Ms Manolova in order to get rid of Ms Fandakova.
A people's ombudsman turning into a People's Mayor
While sociologists forecast a runoff between Ms Fandakova and Ms Manolova on November 3, the ex-ombudsman will have to complete a significant feat in order to win in the second round. She needs to tread very carefully between pandering to both BSP voters, who are not as numerous as in other cities but are still essential to her victory, and right-wing voters. So far, she has played her cards well, building up a complicated coalition of supporters from a variety of groups she worked with during her time as an ombudsman. She has succeeded in riding the waves of anti-systemic protests of the last few months - by supporting civil claims against skyrocketing heating bills of Sofia Central Heating Company's or by backing district groups protesting against new real estate developments in their already squeezed neighbourhoods.
"Against the monopolies and cartels that suck the income of Bulgarian citizens; against the unjust increases of electricity, heating and water bills for which there are no objective and reasonable grounds apart from one - the desire for the enrichment of the monopolists, of the power of the day", Ms Manolova proclaimed in her manifesto. Her populist messages would surely hit home with many disgruntled Sofianites and may even resonate outside the capital in the future, making her a prospective contender to lead the BSP - and perhaps even challenge Mr Borissov's seat as a head of the government?
Yet, that does not necessarily mean she will be the mayor Sofia needs. Beyond the question of whether a broadly populist program against the monopolies is a feasible tool for managing a complex city with a myriad of problems, there is the practical aspect of who controls the City Council. And while Ms Manolova is a strong individual candidate, she will have a hard time breaking through a Council likely to be dominated by GERB and will, paradoxically, once again need the support of councillors from her ex-nemesis.
While it seems that Sofia desperately needs a fresh change of leadership, it is doubtful whether the only contender who can realistically attain that is the most capable person suited for the task. On the other hand, can the people of Sofia just go with the flow for four more years?