Bulgaria’s May 2013 elections: Predictable unpredictability

Written by on March 17, 2013 in Bulgaria, News, Perspectives - No comments

Going by recent polls, it is an open question whether the results of Bulgaria’s May 12 2013 national parliamentary elections will make it possible to form a governing coalition – and to complicate matters further, those polls were done before one faction among the array of protest groups announced that it would register to stand in the election.

The national political drama precipitated by the protests does not appear yet to have had a significant impact on the relative degrees of support for the two largest parties, Boiko Borissov’s centre-right GERB and Sergei Stanishev’s Bulgarian Socialist Party.

But the heightened emotions that have erupted around the issues that have fuelled the protests – electricity prices, monopolies, corruption, the future of enterprises in which the state has a majority stake – have had an effect on minority parties.

In the less than two months before Bulgarians vote in the ahead-of-term elections, the outcome will depend on a range of factors, including campaign messages, the role of the various protest groups and, to an extent, the performance of Prime Minister Marin Raykov’s caretaker administration. The latter is at risk of facing too-high expectations about reforms because of a general lack of understanding among the public about what a caretaker administration can and cannot do.

What follows is an account of the most recent polls, whatever their reliability; the most significant political parties and their campaigns; the protest groups; and the process on the road to May 12.

Polls

According to Bulgaria’s BBSS Gallup polling agency, Borissov’s GERB and Stanishev’s BSP are just one per cent apart, with GERB at 20 per cent and the socialists at 19 per cent.

Volen Siderov’s ultra-nationalist Ataka party has made the most significant gains so far, according to the poll. Torn by internal disputes and scandals in recent years, by the end of 2012 Ataka seemed certain to face oblivion in what had been intended to be regular parliamentary elections in July 2013. Now, the party that always has relied on the bile of disgruntlement for its fuel is set for 10 per cent of the vote, according to Gallup, which would make it the third-largest party in Parliament.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the party led and supported in the main by Bulgarians of ethnic Turkish descent, is set for 5.2 per cent, according to the Gallup poll. Now led by Lyutvi Mestan, the party has had more publicity of late than usual, partly because of the gas pistol incident involving Ahmed Dogan in January, partly because of Borissov’s allegation that Dogan previously had ordered his murder and partly because of the free television time generated overall by Bulgaria’s current political drama. Yet the MRF, according to the Gallup poll, actually has slightly shed support since February.

Hovering below the threshold for seats in Parliament is former European Commissioner Meglena Kouneva’s Bulgaria for Citizens. In spite of having got a disproportionately large amount of media coverage in recent months for a party that is not in Parliament and has made no significant gains in support since its founding, Kouneva’s project has been largely eclipsed by somewhat more significant national events. If the Gallup poll is correct and Kouneva has only three per cent support, her party’s campaign will need to come up with a dramatically enhanced focus and message if it is to hope for a share of seats in the 42nd National Assembly.

But according to Gallup, its trend is downward; the same agency’s poll in February gave Kouneva’s party 4.8 per cent.

In line with the trends of 2012, three minority parties currently with seats in Parliament will not return – Ivan Kostov’s right-wing Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria; the Union of Democratic Forces and Yane Yanev’s Order Law and Justice party.

Gallup said that its poll, done among more than 1000 adult Bulgarians between March 7 and 12, showed that while in February, 37.6 per cent of eligible voters said that they would not vote, this had risen to 42.1 per cent.

Separately, an earlier poll, by the Institute for Modern Politics, the results of which were announced on March 8, gave GERB 24.1 per cent, the BSP 20.3 per cent, the MRF 4.6 per cent, Ataka 3.6 per cent, Kouneva’s party 2.7 per cent, Kostov’s DSB 2.1 per cent and the UDF 1.1 per cent.

Political campaigns

For GERB, the most significant change will be a move “left”, meaning that it intends to portray itself still as the party of fiscal discipline but also – in direct response to the protests – more willing to spend money in the social and stimulus direction.

This emerges from statements by Borissov at his cabinet’s final meeting before the caretaker government took over, as well as his earlier public criticisms of now-former finance minister Simeon Dyankov, for being excessively tight-fisted, in Borissov’s view.

Borissov said that people liked the highways, the signature infrastructure project of his administration from 2009 onwards, but wanted more than that.

Much will depend on Borissov’s role in the campaign. As the protests accelerated and around and beyond the point that he resigned as prime minister, Borissov’s public appearances – even at significant national occasions – became notably rare. The business of government was delayed while he went to hospital for treatment for high blood pressure, and he absented himself from a European People’s Party meeting for the same reason. However, the first sign that he was embarking on the campaign trail was a scheduled appearance in Lovetch on March 17 with his lieutenant, Tsvetan Tsvetanov.

Naturally, of course, GERB will have the strong option of positioning itself in contrast to the lacklustre performance of the socialist-led coalition that was in power from 2005 to 2009. This has been a consistent theme for Borissov, but if the polls above are correct, has not proved enough to be decisive.

The socialists already have promised huge job creation, 250 000 which if it could be done would cut Bulgaria’s unemployment in more than half, as well as increases in pensions and minimum salaries.

Speaking on March 16, Stanishev said that the socialists would stand in the election under the Coalition for Bulgaria banner.

“In the battle we are waging with a lying and populist opponent having huge financial resources, everybody who share our policy must mobilise,” Stanishev said, as quoted by news agency BTA. He said that non-governmental organisations, civil society structures, industry and professional bodies are intensely interested in and prepared to sign bilateral agreements with the BSP.

Protesters

One of the shared demands of the various groups of protesters (again it must be pointed out that it is inappropriate to report “protesters” as if there is a single unified group) has been for changes to electoral law to provide for direct election of citizens from outside political parties in a majoritarian system.

This was a demand impossible to meet, given the constitutional requirement that Parliament be dissolved when the caretaker cabinet came into office, leaving no space for changes to electoral law.

Some of the protest groups have spoken of boycotting the elections while more recently, others have spoken of registering to compete in them, a move that in turn has deepened the infighting among the groups.

On March 16, about 150 people signed a declaration founding the “Deliverance” movement that will stand in the May 12 parliamentary elections.

Speaking to public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television about the founding of “Deliverance”, Ivailo Frantz – the newest among the lengthening list of names of protest organisers – said that there was disunity about “how to use the protests”. Though the new movement, the “true voice of the people” could be conveyed, which until now had been disorganised and spontaneous, he said.

The demands of this movement include most that have a by-now familiar ring – an end to court actions for debt pending a full investigation into the activities of heating and electricity companies, and cutting electricity prices in half.

Not participating in the formation of this movement were several whose names are by now well-known: Angel Slavchev, Doncho Dudev and Yanko Petrov, and in turn, Yanaki Ganchev.

In turn, it was reported that March 17 would see the founding of another political movement by protesters, to be called Bulgarian Spring. This political movement, according to a report by local news agency Focus, would include representatives of protesters, youth and student groups but would not accept membership from representatives of political parties currently or previously in parliament and government.

Meanwhile, while an earlier media report this past week quoted Dudev as saying that regular protests on March 17 would not be held because the caretaker government had a week-long deadline to meet protesters’ demands, protesters were out for a Sunday demonstration.

This protest was held in support of demands now including restarting the Kozloduy nuclear power stations units shut down when Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007; nationalisation of the energy distribution companies; a moratorium on court actions for debt by electricity distribution companies, heating utilities, water supply operators and banks; termination of gold extraction concessions; termination of the privatisation procedures for state railways BDZ; and termination of the privatisation procedure for the VMZ Sopot military materiel manufacturing plant.

Stated intentions for protesters to register for the elections could shake up the results on May 12, but it is an open question whether this process could be completed in time; and obviously, an even more fundamental question is just how much support those protesters who now want seats in Parliament genuinely command.

Process

On March 15, the Institute for Market Economics posted (in Bulgarian only) a rather useful article which deserves a wide readership, pointing out just what it is that a caretaker government can and cannot do.

Among other things, a caretaker cabinet in Bulgaria cannot initiate or amend legislation but may act only on the basis of existing laws, cannot undertake new borrowing and spending and must operate with the Budget already approved by Parliament, meaning that pensions, maternity benefits and child care allowances cannot be increased beyond those already envisaged.

Theoretically, it could effectively reallocate some spending by holding off here and shifting there, and it remains to be seen whether and how this will be done, for instance in the case of the reported intention to give some one-off assistance to Bulgaria’s poorest.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether political parties will confine their election battles to each other or whether some will seek to target Raykov’s administration, which some parties already have decried as “GERB’s B-team”.

As Raykov himself has said, the first on the list of priorities of his administration will be to ensure the delivery of democratic, fair and transparent elections on May 12.

On March 18, the Prosecutor-General, Interior Minister and State Agency for National Security will sign an order on all measures necessary for lawful and orderly elections.

Raykov repeatedly has underlined that his administration will not tolerate “manipulations and irregularities” in the elections.

For now, there are some key dates ahead in the process. Parties and coalitions that want to stand in the May 12 national parliamentary elections have until March 27 to register at the Central Election Commission. The participants in the elections will be announced on April 6.

The official campaigning period will be a month ahead of elections and, as is practice in Bulgaria, Saturday May 11 will be a “day of contemplation” on which no campaigning is allowed – and, by the way, even for those with no interest in politics or for foreigners with no right to vote, it is usual that most municipalities declare a ban on liquor sales through most or all of the day of contemplation and while polling stations are open. In all, in these elections, the liquor ban is about all that is predictable.

(Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)

 

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About the Author

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015).