It’s a rare television debate when one of the candidates struggles so much with emotion as to whip out a tissue and dab away tears. But that was one of the striking moments as Tsetska Tsacheva and Roumen Radev met in a live television encounter a few days before their run-off contest in Bulgaria’s November 2016 presidential elections.
Given that neither is a particularly skilled rhetorician, it was a reasonable expectation that the debate, while live, would hardly be lively. That expectation was shattered in moments of high emotion and – unintentional – comedy.
For the most, however, it was a fractiously-fought fight. Frequently, moderator Dobrina Cheshmedzhieva, presiding over the debate shown live on public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television, struggled to keep the two – one ordinarily the Speaker of the National Assembly, the other a former military general – within the agreed confines of the rules of the encounter. In other words, Tsacheva and Radev repeatedly squabbled, ignoring the stopwatch and the rulebook.
At stake in the debate was the outcome of Sunday’s vote, the run-off between Radev, the candidate backed by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party and who came out with the most votes at the first round on November 6, and Tsacheva, the nominee of Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s centre-right GERB party. In the hours before the debate, two Bulgarian polling agencies gave Radev a lead of about 10 points ahead of the run-off.
The first part of the debate was devoted to foreign policy, inevitably touching on the Trump victory in the United States. While the Bulgarian President constitutionally does not run the government, in protocol terms the head of state is a counterpart of the US president.
Radev used the opportunity for a sideswipe at Tsacheva, saying that she shared the values of Hillary Clinton (perhaps a Trumpian suggestion that Tsacheva is, as the Republican nominee inaccurately claimed, in favour of open borders and weak on illegal immigration).
Tsacheva pledged, if elected, to work with the person who had been chosen by the US electorate, adding that she had no acquaintance with him beyond seeing Trump’s pre-electoral performances.
Radev, who in the first hour of the debate continuously managed answers and statements more succinct and precise than the wooliness of Tsacheva, said that Bulgaria always had had traditionally good relations with the US (Bulgarian politicians tend to blank on the Cold War era when they say things like that) and he would seek new opportunities in building on that.
Asked what two issues they would raise in a possible future meeting with a US president Trump, Radev named security co-operation and partnership in investments “but most of all security”.
Tsacheva named putting to Trump the need for economic co-operation across the Atlantic Ocean, implying that a shift in this direction and away from China was needed (so she has been listening to Trump’s stump speeches, then) and, noting that Bulgaria and the US were partners in Nato, said that the other issue would be security. Should Trump keep to his campaign bombast, a president Tsacheva might instead find herself be presented with a bill.
Asked about two questions that they would put to Russian president Putin, Tsacheva responded with a statement that immediately earned her brickbats from Bulgarians on Facebook, saying that Bulgaria was intent on conducting a foreign policy predicated on pragmatism and the national interests and she would invite Putin to Bulgaria and show him the tourist attractions.
“Tsetska Tsacheva, tour guide!” howled one Facebook post in response, peppered with laughing emoticons.
Radev said that, with Putin, he would raise economic co-operation, the seeking of markets in Russia, and added the standard emotional resonances about two peoples who had a “spiritual bond” (the notion that on the basis that Bulgarians and Russians both are stated Orthodox Christian adherents, there is an eternal and ineffable link. Would Radev, as George W Bush claimed to have done, look into Putin’s eyes and see his soul?)
Sparks flew as Tsacheva challenged Radev on Russian and foreign media reports describing him as the pro-Russian candidate, to which Radev hit back by saying he was a “pro-European” and citing Milliyet as describing Tsacheva as the pro-Turkish candidate – a blow likely to have an audience among the ultra-nationalist electorate whose loyalty the candidates are pursuing at the second round.
Radev, repeatedly interrupted, kept on trying to cite the Financial Times on the issue, though with the mutual cacophony between the two it was difficult to understand in what context. “The FT…the FT…the F…T,” he volleyed at one point, in what was beginning to sound more like product placement than political point-scoring.
Asked with which countries Bulgaria had the most complicated relations, Tsacheva gave an appropriately complicated answer, listing, among others, the EU, the US and Russia and Turkey, putting her point so incoherently as to come across as suggesting that the most complicated relations were with the EU.
Radev exploited the question to say that Bulgaria’s most complicated relations were with Turkey, and segued this into an attack on Tsacheva, citing Milliyet to say she was the candidate of DOST (the MRF breakaway party that is in good odour with Ankara and is said to have gained the most votes for Tsacheva among Bulgarian passport-holders in Turkey) and almost barking at her: “What is your dependence on Turkey?”
The national security phase of the debate was devoted entirely to illegal migration. Radev used it to push his strong hawkish message on securing the borders (a la Trump) with the riff, though, of lambasting the government to which Tsacheva is linked for the high and increasing price tag of the security fence at the Turkish border.
Tsacheva plunged headlong into the trap, sounding like a government spin doctor in saying that it was not just the fence, but also the roads that needed to be built, the difficult terrain…The retired general dismissed her by saying that the terrain where the fence was being extended was less difficult than the area where it first was built.
Radev, again presumably mindful of Bulgarian public opinion against illegal migration – and the votes from it that could be lured to him on Sunday – continued to hammer the issue, accusing the government of an inadequate performance against illegal migration, and having no limit on the number of refugees who would be integrated into Bulgarian society, and no criteria for doing so.
On military matters, the general’s long suit, he accused the government of leaving the army “dead”, its members leaving, those remaining demoralised.
So aggrieved was Tsacheva by Radev’s attacks, his accusations of lying, that at one point she blurted to him: “How will you be the unifier of the nation?” – a reference to the role that the constitution accords the head of state.
On judicial reform, neither candidate did well. Listening to them argue, one could practically hear the briefing sessions they presumably had. Tsacheva portrayed a tale of smooth and steady progress forward, Radev responding with contempt that the changes were no more than “cosmetic”. Radev cited Romania as doing vastly better than Bulgaria against corruption, and said that as president, he would bring in experts from Romania to assist. Tsacheva, missing the chance to tell him they’d already been here, instead tried for point-scoring about why he would drag in foreign experts instead of home-grown ones.
But it was at the point that the candidates were asked to recount personal anecdotes from the campaign trail that Tsacheva made the biggest impact – for good or bad, the electorate, if influenced by the moments, may decide.
Radev gave a pedestrian answer about being in a village near the Bulgarian border and how the people there, impoverished and abandoned by the state, made him affirm his commitment to caring for them.
Tsacheva embarked on an increasingly emotional recollection of being asked about her grandfather, Ivan Tsachev, and how in her childhood the fact of his fate at the hands of the communist regime had been concealed from her by her parents.
She had learnt of it only after November 10 – as Bulgarians refer to the end of the Berlin Wall and the communist regime – and conveyed her frustration, confusion and disappointment that what had happened to Tsachev had been concealed from her all those years.
Plunging on, she said: “I may not be the most beautiful, no spring chicken,” adding how hurtful it was to have herself called the left-wing candidate, to have the validity of her university degree investigated, to have her credentials and bona fides questioned, and added that all of this persuaded her that in Bulgaria, “we need to stop this divisiveness”.
Growing increasingly emotional, she referred – as she had done in a calmer frame of mind earlier this week – to internal party criticism that she had conducted a “tolerant campaign”, conveying also her apparent hurt at “everyone against me”, underlining that she had been on the campaign trail without saying a bad word against her rivals.
“I am an ordinary Bulgarian woman…an ordinary Bulgarian mother,” Tsacheva said, voice breaking, with obvious sincerity, in a scene worthy – however spontaneous – of a really good scriptwriter. The fragility and sincerity of the emotional moment cannot be doubted; yet too it reminded one of the kind of extract that would be on the big screen just before Streep stepped up to collect the Oscar.
Tsacheva, after her soliloquy, dabbed at her eyes. Minutes afterwards, she again produced what had now become Bulgaria’s most famous tissue, and did so again. At one point, as Radev was speaking, she bowed her head, overcome. Not by his words, but by her own.
On Facebook, some mocked. Were some moved? Does Bulgaria’s electorate include Spirow Agnew’s silent majority, women watching who connected, in those moments, with that self-described “ordinary Bulgarian woman”, put upon – in sneering comments online – about her looks and her age?
For minutes after this outburst, Radev seemed quietened and almost subdued. Notably, he did not interrupt amid Tsacheva’s emotional overload. He looked precisely what he was: a man unable to know what on earth to do when a woman displays fraught emotions in front of him. Even Cheshmedzhieva seemed affected; she also referred directly to the emotionalism of it all. There must have been some heat in that BNT studio, not just from the ceiling lights.
Eventually, we got back to the expected exchanges of platitudes, about a strong Bulgaria (the priority of Radev), a united Bulgaria (of Tsacheva).
Another key point was on the question of whether to bar former communist-era secret service State Security from the Presidency’s office, as incumbent Rossen Plevneliev has done. Tsacheva pledged a continuation of Plevneliev’s policies; Radev murmured about personally knowing people who had put their lives on the line for Bulgaria, and should not be judged merely as “collaborators”. That’s code for what the BSP did in power in 2013/24 – rehabilitation and restoration to office of State Security people.
It was not without its lighter moments, this 90-minute television show that was live and lively.
The topic of literary preferences came up. Radev admitted a fondness for Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. He referred to reading it.
“During the campaign?” Tsacheva shot back, with genuine astonishment. It was a good moment for her; perfect comic timing from someone of whom it may not necessarily be expected.
And that was it, only the second debate between the two, and the final one. By law, no further campaigning is allowed after midnight on Friday. Saturday is the “Day of Contemplation”. And soon after 8pm on Sunday, it should become clear, the final judgment on who won that debate, the election, and the Bulgarian President’s chair from 2017 to 2022.