For Bulgaria, ‘months of permanent scandal ahead’

Written by on January 28, 2014 in Perspectives - No comments

Political commentator Dimitar Ganev, speaking on Bulgarian National Radio on January 28, said that months of permanent scandal lay ahead in the approach to the country’s European Parliament elections.

He expected a campaign that would have nothing to do with European issues and everything to do with Bulgarian domestic politics – and a campaign that would characterised by everyone trying to discredit everyone else, notwithstanding political parties’ stated desire for “positive” campaigning.

Ganev referred to the contest for ground on the left and the right, as the major players – centre-right GERB and the current ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party – face challenges from within their own respective political spectrums.

The comment brings to mind one by another commentator recently, that for the first time in many elections, Bulgarians of various political stripes have options within their own place in the political spectrum.

These choices, in that view, were for BSP voters, the alternative of Georgi Purvanov’s ABC movement; for GERB voters, the Reformist Bloc; and for those who previously voted for Volen Siderov’s ultra-nationalist Ataka party, there is Valeri Simeonov’s National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria. There are other lesser forces, of course, confounding matters, such as right-wing Blue Unity, which will split votes on that front; and too there is Nikolai Barekov’s Bulgaria without Censorship, which by the histrionic behaviour of the former reporter who is its leader is somehow reminiscent of the Monster Raving Loony Party, but without the sartorial flamboyance.

In predicting months of permanent scandal ahead, Ganev is correct, but it must be added that Bulgaria also has months of permanent scandal behind.

Those months started with the protests of February 2013, rallied around high electricity bills and the cost of living generally, but which were in fact a vehicle in which people were mobilised by “protest leaders” with highly leftist backgrounds and strong Russophile links to bring down the GERB government headed by Boiko Borissov.

In turn, the national parliamentary elections of May 2013 – brought forward from their originally scheduled July date and characterised by vicious smear-campaigning – led to the current vastly unpopular BSP government and the many months of street protests demanding its resignation, with impetus for this campaign fuelled in particular by the abortive appointment of Delyan Peevski as head of the State Agency for National Security.

Indeed, campaigning for Bulgaria’s European Parliament elections already has begun, even given the political custom that official campaign periods in this country are largely a legal fiction, affecting largely only issues such as electioneering on public broadcasters. And again, given the sequence of protests, any distinction between one campaign and another by various forces in the political spectrum is essentially artificial.

With just less than four months to go to Bulgaria’s May 25 2014 European Parliament elections, Purvanov has emerged in a spoiler role, not only for the BSP that he used to lead more than a decade ago, but also for other hopeful “third-party” aspirants, such as Barekov.

Going by the recent Alpha Research poll, Purvanov has started out by taking away a notable share of BSP votes, but also will take some from GERB, Barekov, and former European Commissioner Meglena Kouneva’s Bulgaria for Citizens, the last-mentioned part of the Reformist Bloc.

Among those last three, it could be understandable that there are voters who reject the Sergei Stanishev model of BSP behaviour within the current ruling axis, and the party’s being in thrall to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, but who also could not stomach a return to power by Borissov and are simply not that enthused about Kouneva.

Barekov has had a long lead-in to his current role as Bulgaria’s self-described next prime minister, with the media which formerly employed him, and which is owned by Peevski’s family, boosting him beyond his significance. Oddly, even non-Peevski media have been giving Barekov disproportionate attention.

Barekov’s gains have been few. Polls give him scant chances of a signicant share of the vote, and his party launch on January 25 – the latest in a series of well-funded public events – has shown his party to have attracted only second-string and has-been politicians.

Barekov has made much of attacking the “politicians of the transition” but made an exception for former head of state Petar Stoyanov, who in turn endorsed him, with apparently all concerned conveniently forgetting quite how much a politician of the transition Stoyanov is – for a number of reasons including his role as one of a long line of failed leaders who sought to revive the fortunes of the once-mighty right-wing Union of Democratic Forces.

It appears that Barekov could come up with a member or more in the 42nd National Assembly, in the form of BSP member of Parliament Roumen Yonchev and, according to Barekov, Svetlin Tanchev, who in late 2013 quit the GERB parliamentary group to sit as an independent.

However, there was an immediate reverse for Yonchev as the centre-right EU-level European People’s Party declared his agrarian party (which has been part of the BSP-led parliamentary group the Coalition for Bulgaria) persona non grata, a move that in turn slams the door to any pretentions Barekov may have about his party getting an EPP platform. In Bulgaria, the EPP’s largest member party is GERB.

Tanchev, for now, has been equivocal in interviews with Bulgarian-language media about whether he would be joining Bulgaria without Censorship or would be on its list for the European Parliament elections.

Meanwhile, lists continue to be a sore topic for the BSP, after Purvanov confirmed that he would launching his own in the European Parliament elections, led by his long-standing ally, MEP and former foreign minister Ivailo Kalfin.

So far, the Alpha Research poll is the only reliable measure of how much support Purvanov’s alternative is said to have. Several commentators have not rated the chances of the Purvanov project highly.

But that said, the Stanishev-led BSP appears to be struggling to contain the damage. Some local leaderships have aligned themselves to Purvanov, in places from Pleven to Montana to Stara Zagora, formerly reliable voting fodder for the BSP.

The “ultimatum” episode also, so far, has proved somewhat of a debacle for Stanishev’s BSP.

The BSP gave Purvanov and his allies an ultimatum of backing down from his project within a week or face expulsion.

Purvanov responded immediately that there was nothing in the party rules about ultimatums and repeated his early assertion that neither he nor his movement members intended quitting the BSP (in any case, most observers see his movement as bid to get back the BSP leadership from Stanishev).

Bombastic bluster on the morning of January 28, the expiry date of the ultimatum, by BSP member Dimitar Dubev that had none of the Purvanov group backed down, they would expelled, came to naught.

High noon came and went with all six-shooters still in their holsters and the piano still playing in the saloon, and Purvanov and his posse still members of the BSP.

Indeed, there are rules about expulsion from the party, but the process is by no means that simple.

The issue will be discussed at a meeting of the BSP national council on February 1, but even that body does not on its own have the power to unilaterally expel a member. It must make a recommendation to the party congress – and already, Purvanov loyalists in the BSP are reported to be circulating a petition to oppose any motion on expulsion. For both sides, time is limited, given that the BSP has a congress scheduled for February 8, in what originally was intended to be a rabble-rousing event ahead of its European Parliament election campaign.

So the melodramas of Bulgaria’s permanent political scandals proceed, perhaps one of the contributing factors – as per the same Alpha Research poll – to the dim view that Bulgarians take of the activities of Parliament and their politicians.

(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).