Could Purvanov project split the BSP vote?

Written by on January 12, 2014 in Perspectives - No comments

Bulgarian media reports that former president Georgi Purvanov was reviving his ABC Movement prompted a flurry of political comment, including from dismayed members of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and an optimistic claim from a senior figure in opposition GERB that the BSP was about to split.

Purvanov was leader of the BSP before becoming head of state at the beginning of 2002. Reaching the end of his two-term limit, he launched ABC – Алтернатива за българско Възраждане (АБВ) in Bulgarian – as a so-called civil movement, though skeptics saw it as a vehicle for his political ambitions after the end of his presidency.

The vehicle, however, only chugged, failed to start and attracted as passengers those already close to Purvanov. In turn, Purvanov’s attempt to grab the BSP leadership back from his former protege Sergei Stanishev failed.

The circumstances of these dramas in the BSP in late 2010 and early 2012 were, however, different from those now surrounding the BSP.

Before the May 2013 elections, Stanishev exiled senior Purvanov loyalists from electable places on party lists. Stanishev, who in his leadership of the party since 2002 has never taken it to a majority victory in any parliamentary, presidential or municipal election, again led the party into second place. But it was he who received the mandate to form a government when first-placed GERB found itself in a 42nd National Assembly in which Boiko Borissov’s centre-right party had no allies with which to form a coalition to return to power.

Even though this turn of events brought the BSP back into government, it has been far from a glittering success for Stanishev, who omitted himself from a role as an office-bearer in the administration, instead placing Plamen Oresharski in the prime minister’s chair. This supposedly, in the claims of Stanishev, was because the government was an “expert” one (given the backgrounds of those appointed to the cabinet, this claim rapidly became a joke among those opposed to the BSP), while Stanishev’s manoeuvre also was seen as in line with his ambitions for a European role after European Parliament and European Commission elections from mid-to-late 2014.

Even within the BSP, the way in which the party appears to be in thrall to its Movement for Rights and Freedoms ruling axis partner – best illustrated by the abortive appointment of media mogul Delyan Peevski as State Agency for National Security head, which unleashed widely-supported anti-government protests – has caused discomfort and occasional open criticism.

Further, the months of dependence on ultra-nationalist Ataka leader Volen Siderov, and clear examples of Siderov’s agenda being pushed within the ruling axis, could not fail to be a source of embarassment.

This embarassment reached a new level when Siderov was involved in the Varna Airport debacle. Since news of the January 6 2014 incident emerged, Stanishev has been notably silent on the issue, although a handful of BSP members lower down in the food chain have commented.

All this is the lengthy background to why there was significant reaction to reports that Purvanov had “de-mothballed” ABC at a closed meeting with close allies on January 10. Not only this, Purvanov reportedly was planning to put forward his own, separate, list of left-wing candidates for Bulgaria’s May 25 2014 European Parliament elections.

Reports said that this list would be headed by Ivailo Kalfin. Now an MEP, Kalfin was foreign minister and deputy prime minister in the 2005/09 socialist-led tripartite coalition government, ran second in the 2011 presidential elections (being defeated by GERB candidate Rossen Plevneliev) and, with a background in the social democratic party, is not a BSP member and has been outspoken in criticism of the government formed in May 2013.

A formal re-launch of Purvanov’s ABC would be held in Sofia on January 14, reports said, while when questioned by bTV about the electoral lists issue, Kalfin said that “when there is something to be announced, this will be done”.

Senior GERB member of Parliament Dessislava Atanassova seized eagerly on the news about the Purvanov move, telling local reporters that “my parliamentary colleagues with GERB have received information that the BSP is about to break up”. Again, the spectacle of trouble within the BSP is a handy deflection from GERB’s own internal problems, including having shed two members of Parliament and with reports suggesting that more may follow them out of the parliamentary group.

Reports also did not fail to note that there could be another drain on the BSP’s electoral power because of the alternative movement set up by Tatyana Doncheva, a long-time critic of the BSP leadership and a former party veteran who allowed her BSP membership to lapse.

At this stage it is not clear what, if any, significant consequences there will be from Purvanov’s move.

Cynics already have suggested that the re-emergence of ABC along with reports of Kalfin being mooted as its European Parliament election list leader are an attempt to ensure that Purvanov people make it on to electable places on the BSP list, thus preventing a repeat of the run-up to the May 2013 national parliamentary elections.

The re-emergence of ABC also could be a move to unseat Stanishev not only as leader of the BSP but also as head of the Party of European Socialists, bringing him down to open the way for a renewed challenge for the national leadership either by Purvanov or a Purvanov proxy.

Whatever happens, top places on the BSP European Parliament list will be worth fighting for. Even though the more reliable polls show 80 per cent of Bulgarians supporting anti-government protesters’ demands for the government to step down to make way for new parliamentary elections, polls also show the BSP either (depending on the alignment of the polling agency) as the party with the strongest support, or in a close second place.

Further, for Bulgaria the stakes in the European Parliament elections of 2014 are unusually high, given that the outcome may determine whether early national parliamentary elections are called.

However, for Purvanov any path to power for himself or his cohorts will not be without significant obstacles. As noted, his previous attempts have failed, and it remains an open question whether misgivings within the BSP are sufficient to precipitate a leadership change that could have profound consequences. And further, as a commentator in the Bulgarian media noted, the history and internal culture of the BSP tends to be one that produces backlashes against rebels and those who could split the party.

(Photo of Purvanov: European Parliament)

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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).