The beginning of June 2012 finds Bulgaria about a year away from parliamentary elections, and undeclared campaigning already begun – not least by a Prime Minister and governing party with, on the face of it, little to fear from opposition parties wracked by in-fighting and lack of strategic direction.
This spring has seen opposition politicians of various stripes presenting Boiko Borissov, the head of government and of ruling party GERB, with a series of political gifts, though hardly of their own volition.
The largest opposition party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), emerged from a congress that saw a damaging internal battle for the leadership between the current and immediate past (by a decade) leaders, Sergei Stanishev and Georgi Purvanov.
Purvanov backed down rather than face the inevitability of formal defeat, and only the most optimistic cheerleaders for the party hailed the fact that the leadership battle had not resulted in a split.
But the real question for the BSP was whether it emerged from the congress with a clear direction and vision for the year or so ahead to the parliamentary elections. It seems that it did not.
Ahead of the final moments of decision on the leadership question, it was clear that Stanishev had secured a commanding hold on the party – but the further question remained of what he would do with it. Analysts have criticised him for having spent more time talking about the shortcomings of other parties and not facing up to the failures of his own.
BSP veteran Tatyana Doncheva, long openly critical of the party leadership, was blunt about the inadequacies of the congress in dealing with the question of reform. “The fact that my esteemed colleagues Roumen Ovcharov and Georgi Pirinski are supposed to promote reform on the morning after the congress says it all,” Doncheva said after it was all over.
However, she said that the imperative for change in the BSP was urgent because the party was “uncompetitive” and the way that the congress had turned out could itself serve as the catalyst for change.
Current polls suggest that the BSP, which in 2009 was left with the smallest parliamentary group it has had since the time of the post-communist transition, will get about 18 per cent in 2013, putting it in second place in the National Assembly.
This is against the more than 30 per cent projected for Borissov’s GERB.
As for Meglena Kouneva’s party, Bulgaria for Citizens – formal registration is to take place by September 2012, going by reported statements by the former European Commissioner and failed 2011 presidential canidates – the polls give it about 5.5 to six per cent next year.
Kouneva’s ambition is to push that figure up to about 15 per cent, a figure close to the one she got in the first round of the 2011 presidential elections, with a formula based on “listening to people”, and acting as the proponent of various reforms, notably to the electoral system (conveniently ignoring Cabinet approval in May 2012 of a number of proposed electoral reforms, including against vote-buying and registration problems).
Around the centre-right spectrum, the May 2012 collapse of the Blue Coalition provided another spectacle to mildly amuse the Prime Minister (though as with other political implosions since 2009, such as that of ultra-nationalists Ataka, party conspiracy theorists have darkly suggested that GERB pays for defections and splits among its rivals, an allegation that the ruling party denies).
The Blue Coalition, made up of the Union of Democratic Forces led by Martin Dimitrov and the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria led by Ivan Kostov, disintegrated, with Dimitrov stepping down as UDF chief after his party rejected the continuation of the coalition into the 2013 elections.
Kostov has had troubles of his own, with a series of defections from the party (some in Kouneva’s direction) and polls give scant to no chance to a stand-alone DSB of a return to Parliament next year.
Some polls give the post-Dimitrov UDF a slight chance of a place in Parliament, unlike Volen Siderov’s Ataka, currently written off as a spent force after the internal dissension, defections and 2011 electoral debacles that have dragged it down. It has spawned a spinoff, Dimitar Stoyanov’s National Democratic Party, which like any number of spinoffs of the past decade and more, similarly appears destined for oblivion.
The fact, however, that Borissov continues to proceed with decision-making carefully sensitive to public opinion seems to show that ruling party strategists see opposition disarray not as reason for complacency but as an opportunity, to pump up performance in 2013.
Before then, it may not be the alternatives offered by other parties that matter, but cost-of-living, inflation and unemployment rate issues that ultimately determine that election performance.