On 29 October Bulgarians will vote in what are likely the most important elections in the last three years - for mayors and city councilors across the country. These elections are traditionally the most disputed and interesting, as they are influenced by both local and national party dynamics, which means politics does not play out as usual. Also, turnout and engagement are higher, as voters and party activists are much more eager to participate because what is at stake hits much closer to home.
Add to that the unorthodox current political climate that will pit two nominally aligned factions - GERB and WCC-DB - against each other. Plus the internal intrigues and turf wars playing out within each of these camps for another dose of drama. The result is a tense, last-minute nomination of candidates, uncertain outcomes and a potential spillover effect of the final results onto national politics.
Below, KInsights has compiled a comprehensive guide to the most important standoffs, the combatants and the likely distribution of power in key cities.
The big one: battle for Sofia
Needless to say, all eyes are on the capital. A month after the entrance of IT entrepreneur Vassil Terziev as the United for Sofia (WCC-DB and Save Sofia) nominee, the revelation of bTV news Anton Hekimyan as the surprise GERB candidate totally changed the ballgame. GERB knows that, in Sofia they are on the ropes after more than 14 years of underwhelming rule by Yordanka Fandakova and an increasing disdain for their party cadres. So the nomination of the long-time journalist aims to attract more votes than a narrow-party candidacy.
While some speculated that Mr Hekimyan's nomination is an attempt by Boyko Borissov to lose the capital city to WCC-DB in a controlled fashion, this is unlikely. GERB's leadership is well aware that the battle will be about something else. Regardless of who wins the mayoral seat, they cannot push through any policies (and interests) if their party does not have a majority on Sofia Municipal Council.
By all indications, no coalition will score enough councilors to form a majority of the required 31. The council would likely be divided among several party groups, which will call for local-level coalitions. And just as at national level, any additional councilor GERB acquires will put it in a position vis-a-vis United for Sofia. At least because Mr Borissov has proven he has no scruples about allying with formations of different character and ideology, including nationalists - or, why not - BSP, which will likely improve their standing on Sofia Council because of their strong mayor candidate, trade unionist Vanya Grigorova.
Thus, at the moment it seems there are two options. Either to implement the "assembly" (the mocking term used to describe the coalition between WCC-DB and GERB on the national level) at the local level, or to form a majority around GERB with the other parties in the council, which will control every move of the mayor, even if he is Vassil Terziev. This automatically places GERB in an easier spot, whatever the final result of the vote.
Around the country: GERB's familiar faces
Despite GERB leader Boyko Borissov claiming he has renewed the party's faces in local government (some of whom have been in power for several terms) the party has nominated most of them again. Whether due to a lack of cadres to replace them, or because of local political-economic ties, GERB again bet on Dimitar Nikolov for a fifth term as mayor of Burgas; on Zhivko Todorov in Stara Zagora for a third term, although he himself announced after winning the previous vote that he would no longer run; and on Ivan Portnih in Varna, despite his two failed mandates and the investigation against him by the European Prosecutor's Office.
The picture is similar in Montana, Kyustendil, Veliko Tarnovo and Pazardzhik. In places where GERB's local structures are weak, the party has recognized incumbent mayors who are running again. Such are the cases in Blagoevgrad and Pernik, where GERB stands behind Ilko Dimitrov, who is mayor on the TISP ticket, and Stanislav Vladimirov, who was nominated by BSP in the previous election, but is now running on behalf of his own formation, created shortly before the vote.
Local drama in WCC-DB
The candidates' selection and the arrangement of the lists for municipal councilors proved to be a serious test for WCC-DB, as it caused turmoil among partners on the ground. The most striking example is Burgas, where the coalition will appear with a common list for municipal councilors, but with two candidates - Democratic Bulgaria MP Dimitar Naydenov and WCC deputy Konstantin Bachiyski, who is running under the banner of his own Middle European Class party. Notably, his party has separately nominated candidates in other towns as well.
There were also clashes with the lists for municipal councilors in some regional towns, which were repeatedly rearranged until the last moment, and after their final arrangement, some of the local structures of the coalition members boycotted them. In the present situation, WCC-DB faces another big challenge - how to overcome the internal turmoil plus the negatives of its coalition rule with GERB in order to turn its second place in the national election into mayoral seats or, at least into municipal council seats in the regional centers.
Vazrazdane's important test
Despite their huge ideological differences, the third largest party in Parliament, Vazrazhdane, faces much the same challenges as WCC-DB in the upcoming vote. Market Links sociologist Dobromir Zhivkov says that Vazrazhdane will be forced to engage on local issues and moderate its combative stance. "The party, like the WCC-DB coalition, will also be on the rise in the upcoming elections and will establish a presence in municipal councils in many places. However, it will be important not only how the party enters local government but also how this could potentially affect its political behavior. More or less, it will be forced to step back from its extremely aggressive rhetorical positions, because such behavior in places where specific issues need to be talked about is impossible."
Probably with the idea of getting the maximum number of local councilors, Vazrazhdane also nominated its parliamentary deputies in most regional towns as mayoral candidates. And while very few of them stand a chance in the big cities, the breakthroughs the party would make in smaller towns and in city councils will be important in the long run.
Slight ailments in MRF as well
On the grounds that they are changing the face of the local government, MRF did not nominate long-serving mayors in a number of municipalities, most notably in their stronghold of Kardzhali. There, Hasan Azis, who had held the post for five terms, was not re-nominated, and the director of D Bank in the city, Errol Mumun, was nominated in his place. Mr Azis's elimination is not a surprise, as his last two terms can be described as years of "great stagnation" for the city. Also, he divided the local MRF structure, causing scandals among its activists after each election. Now the issue has been taken up by the honorary chairman of the MRF, Ahmed Dogan, who personally nominated Mr Mumun and, at the last moment, saw people close to Mr Azis drop out from the party lists. The situation is similar in another key MRF stronghold - Targovishte.
The MRF will not participate in the mayoral race in another important town for the party - Velingrad, which became known as Delyan Peevski's fiefdom. In 2011, the MP, sanctioned for corruption under the global Magnitsky Act, was the leader of the list for municipal councilors there. It is curious which party's candidate the MRF will support there and in Targovishte.
BSP with a chance for Ruse
In the previous local elections, the BSP made a breakthrough in three regional cities - Ruse, Pernik and Blagoevgrad, but this time it can only hope to retain Ruse, where the party again backs the current mayor Pencho Milkov and GERB and WCC-DB's nominations were late and unconvincing.
Moreover, in a number of regional towns the nominations for mayor caused scandals because the central leadership did not comply with the wishes of the local structures, which stood behind candidates of the opposition in the BSP, loyal to President Rumen Radev. As a consequence, in Sliven, for example, the Socialists will run two candidates for mayor. The situation is the same in Shumen.
The Plovdiv gambit
Against this backdrop, another trend is emerging: it is very likely that in Plovdiv, the second largest regional city, the vote will be decided by the growing role of business in the distribution of local political resources. In order to minimize the damage from the resignation of GERB leader Ivan Totev, Mr Borissov nominated for mayor the party's candidate Kostadin Dimitrov, the long-time mayor of the Trakia district. The nomination of Ivaylo Staribratov for mayor by WCC-DB was not unanimously accepted by the local structures of both formations.
Besides them, the ex-mayor from GERB, Slavcho Atanasov, will run for office again, as he is nominated by several local formations that have a permanent presence in the municipal council for many years and a total of 10 councilors and ties to local businesses. It will be curious to see which of the two candidates these formations will back if Mr Dimitrov and Mr Staribratov reach the run-off. The situation will be similar to that in Varna, where Mr Portnih won the previous vote because of the low turnout and support fro some of the big businesses in the city.