Official campaigning in Bulgaria’s November 2016 presidential elections got underway on the weekend of October 9 and 10, with major parties and coalitions staking their bids for the candidates to be the country’s next head of state.
On the eve of the weekend, a wide range of candidates – major and minor – made full use of their opportunity for time on the public broadcaster, at least one, that of Dimitar “Mityo Pishtova” Marinov, being sufficiently bizarre to earn a place as fodder for chit-chat on Facebook for the ensuing hours.
At Sofia’s Arena Armeec stadium on Sunday, Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB launched its presidential campaign, with candidate Tsetska Tsacheva saying that she wanted to be president “also for those people who are disillusioned with politicians” (that should guarantee a landslide).
“Political apathy is the biggest opponent in this campaign,” said Tsacheva, which does not say much about her rival candidates, but then, it does not say much about Tsacheva herself.
Her big goal was to unify Bulgaria, she said. The president should be a guarantee for the modernisation of the Bulgarian military within Nato, said Tsacheva, who also promised to be “regularly in the National Assembly” – from whence she has come from her current post as Speaker, to stand to be head of state – “to inform it about the selection of senior government positions in conditions of transparency and tolerance”.
Tsacheva said that she believed that she would win the elections on two grounds, “first, in this room I’m with 15 000 winners, and second, with the Vice-Admiral (her vice-presidential candidate, Plamen Manushev) we are a strong team with strong ideas about the future of Bulgaria”.
The president, she said, was the guarantor of law and stability. “We will work on judicial reform, we will insist on independent, functioning and fair Bulgarian courts,” said Tsacheva, apparently honouring the tradition of Bulgarian presidential elections being fought on issues that the head of state, who is not a member of the executive, is not in charge of.
Borissov repeated his threat, or promise, for his government to resign unless Tsacheva won the election.
The previous day, Roumen Radev, the candidate of an “initiative committee” but in reality the candidate of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, saw a Bulgaria “decomposing before our eyes” as the government was failing to solve the demographic crisis while the arrival of “foreigners” (he meant refugees and migrants, apparently) was turning Bulgaria into a refugee camp.
(To jump in with a bit of fact-checking, the population of refugees in Bulgaria rates as somewhat less than a percent of the country’s 7.1 million population, making Radev guilty of a factual inexactitude).
“Shall we continue to have a president who serves the interests of the government and of foreign powers, or one who has found the strength to fight?” asked Radev, in an explicit criticism based on claims that incumbent President Plevneliev, elected on GERB’s ticket in 2011, was a marionette of Borissov.
Radev said that he wanted to be the “father of the nation” – a reference to Borissov’s earlier statement that Bulgaria had had several fathers of the nation and now, in the form of Tsacheva, should have a mother of the nation.
Radev emphasised that small municipalities and rural areas are key to the development of Bulgaria.
“The state cannot abdicate from smaller municipalities and care only for large ones. Our country will never be prosperous and rich, if we do not fix the villages and infrastructure, and employment, eradicate domestic crime. We must seek more money for the village, investment and small-volume production, agriculture, processing,” said Radev – again referring to matters over which the head of state has no say.
A few years ago, the same incumbent President Plevneliev said, with mild irony, that the Bulgarian constitution was a very interesting document, and everyone should read it. To that thought, one may add “especially before standing in a presidential election”.
Meanwhile, the Reformist Bloc’s Traicho Traikov’s campaign was launched at Bulgaria Hall on Saturday, with Traikov musing that it was a “symbolic coincidence that we are in a hall named Bulgaria, because we proceed in the name of Bulgaria”.
“We will be so free and strong, as we are ready to win. We are all Bulgaria. Not malls, wire fences and motorways. The people are the country,” Traikov said, in what must rank as one of the more Zen opening messages in a Bulgarian presidential campaign.
Much less Zen was his recollection of his truncated career as one of Borissov’s Cabinet ministers, as he said that he had tried to prevent the “theft” of Plovdiv Fair, the “robbery” Belene and said that he had opposed the multimillion scam South Stream.
Traikov left his post in the first Borissov Cabinet as economy and energy minister, ostensibly over a business forum held in Qatar descending into farce, but in reality, according to many observers, over differences with Borissov over major energy project issues.
“The mafia has not only lawyers – there are judges and prosecutors. They finished the case when I left,” Traikov said.
It was an illusion that non-party expert working for his country could reverse the status quo, he said.
This took a critical mass of people working in the same direction, and key management positions, Traikov said, pointing to the critically-important post of president and the need for a team of like-minded people.
Traikov said that he was looking for support and strength “from all those who are fed up with corruption, poverty, lawlessness and sway of our country between the interests of others in the world”.
Krassimir Karakachanov, candidate of the “United Patriots” – an election coalition of the ultra-nationalist National Movement for the Salvation of Bulgaria, VMRO and Ataka – ticked every far-right box as he launched his campaign to an audience that tended to favour darkish garb with one or two quasi-para-military touches.
Karakachanov promised to put the military on a sound footing, to bring back conscription, to stop the “Gypsification and Islamization of Bulgaria”, to neutralise monopolies and return as many ethnic Bulgarians to the country.
“Nobody sees that Bulgaria from day to day is being Gypsified,” proclaimed Karakachanov, apparently without dwelling to muse on what may lie behind this apparent national myopia.
Though he did go on to say that in fact “everyone knows”, but for those in power it is easier to pay 20 to 30 leva to pay Roma to vote for them.
He vowed to discontinue “funding of Gypsy fertility” and for educated young Bulgarians to be helped to support themselves and have children.
Another measure to combat the demographic crisis, in the view of Karakachanov, will be attracting as many ethnic Bulgarians from Ukraine, Moldova and all over the world to live in Bulgaria. Attempts will be made to return those million and a half Bulgarians who departed for abroad from the beginning of democracy, Karakachanov said.
According to him, the government was “controlled by foreign senators, ambassadors and even janitors at embassies and it is high time to have a serious and independent politicians”.
He said that he would use the Consultative Council on National Security (convened by the president) as his main tool of influence.
“Gypsy petty crime, military, economy and unemployment, demographic crisis, foreign policy – on these topics the president has the right to convene the Consultative Council on National Security. I’ll muster it every month,” Karakachanov said.
He said that his first visit to a foreign country would be to Turkey, to explain to Ankara that it should “stop funding Islamist organizations and Bulgarian parties, and dividing Bulgarian society”.
If Turkey agreed, “we would be friends”. If it did not, “we will not take this lying down, as other governments have”.
ABC candidate Ivailo Kalfin told his audience at his October 8 launch event: “We go into this fight to win. Nothing less than winning the presidential elections will satisfy us”.
Having cleared up that point for anyone who may have had doubts, Kalfin said that if elected president, he would stimulate public debate on legislation regulating the powers of the institution.
Kalfin said that the president should point out the issues, and be the “engine” that brings institutions together and forces them to work on solving them.
“The presidential institution must not cause wars. Rather, it should seek agreement with the National Assembly, Prime Minister, with the Cabinet, with civil society,” he said (the reference to wars was to inter-institutional wars, not the type that a president Karakachanov might have his mythical conscript army ready for).
Kalfin called on Tsacheva to assess the work of “their president” Plevneliev – emphasis on the “their” – saying that it was important to make clear whether GERB was making another attempt to appoint someone who would listen to the party chief and say that everything is fine, or if elected, would change the institution.
A number of other campaigns were launched, of course, given that there are 21 presidential candidates.
Notable among these was that of Movement 21’s Tatyana Doncheva, who played the violin – which she is well-qualified to do – at her presidential campaign launch, and spoke of her vision to give courage to Bulgaria, along with an “army of the spirit”. Not a conscript one, presumably.