Perhaps when April 12 brings the formal start of the campaign period ahead of Bulgaria’s May 12 national parliamentary elections, the placing of the figureheads of the two major rival parties may become somewhat more conventional.
Because for about a month, centre-right party GERB’s campaign to return to power with Boiko Borissov again as prime minister has been personified largely by his deputy Tsvetan Tsvetanov, in the absence of Borissov; while the Bulgarian Socialist Party has its leader Sergei Stanishev to the fore, though in the event of a socialist victory, it will be Plamen Oresharski and not Stanishev who will be PM.
It is, of course, not merely a battle between personalities, but also about the direction that Bulgaria will take. It is also not a battle between just these two parties for the prize of a decisive victory, but is in fact a battle over which will be the majority partner in a new governing coalition, whether formal or informal.
Nor is it the politics of “business as usual” as this election campaign has been influenced by the protests that brought it about. Yet, at the same time, the polls suggest that potential electoral support for a “party of the protesters” is not significant enough to have substantially moved Bulgaria away from the two-party model that has been in place since the rise of Borissov and GERB.
Whichever of the two emerges as the dominant party after the elections – barring an inconclusive result – it is reasonably certain that in terms of senior personnel, meaning figures in government, it will not quite be the recipe as before. A number of cabinet ministers from the final version of the Borissov cabinet, at the point of his resignation, are not to be found at the head of candidate lists. On the other side, prominent veterans of socialist front benches have been disappeared from the top spots on the BSP lists.
Borissov, for years ubiquitous in news broadcasts even before becoming prime minister, largely disappeared from sight amid the most dramatic days that followed the announcement of his resignation.
Apart from photo opportunities with religious leaders as he was reported to be in hospital for treatment for high blood pressure, and the ritual return of a mandate to form a government anew, Borissov was hardly seen. Perhaps, a strategy to keep him out of the figurative firing line and to restore the idea of a Borissov appearance being a news event, rather than a matter of routine.
On April 7, a lavish, highly choreographed and colour-coded event at the Arena Armeec hall in Sofia was the scene for his return. Backed by a giant screen and the loyalists at the head of the lists, Borissov greeted the close to 14 000 delegates at a national conference, underlining that it was his party alone that could stop the socialists from returning to power.
“GERB is the only party which can stop the former communists,” Borissov said, taking a sideswipe at other, much smaller right-wing parties; seemingly an odd point to underline, something of the hammer and the fly, but perhaps essential to a party that amid a wide field cannot afford to shed a single vote.
Borissov spoke of the EU funds that he said his party had brought to the country and would continue to do so, contrasting this to his portrayal of the socialists and their de facto partners the Movement for Rights and Freedoms as only having exported capital.
It is also clear that the weeks remaining to the May 12 vote will see further runny smudges fired between the rival camps, rather like a reckless political paintball match, with the added dimension of anonymous snipers in the bushes.
The year opened with a campaign to label Borissov as having been “Agent Buddha” with the suggestion that he had been well-placed to inform anti-organised crime police on mafia figures because of his own alleged intimate links to them. This allegation, denied by Borissov, had its match in one in recent days that Stanishev had been an agent for communist-era State Security. That, in turn, was denied not only by Stanishev but also by the Dossier Commission, the statutory body charged with checking the records of public figures and announcing any links found to communist Bulgaria’s secret services – both pointing out that as an MP and as a prime minister, Stanishev had been checked and no evidence of State Security employ found. Borissov denied having anything to do with the allegation against Stanishev emerging.
Stanishev has made a show of reporting to prosecutors allegations that Tsvetanov was implicated in illegal eavesdropping while interior minister. The investigation by prosecutors is continuing, with a due date for its results to be announced on April 16, but already Tsvetanov has denied the allegation and challenged Stanishev to quit politics if it is found to be untrue.
These are just a few episodes out of a list that is likely to get longer and dirtier in the next few weeks.
Stanishev has spoken of Bulgaria needing a “programme cabinet” headed by Oresharski to rescue the country from the mess that the socialist leader claims GERB left it in.
On April 9, Stanishev is due to announce details of its plans for attracting foreign investment, an element somewhat crucial for his bold promise that a BSP government would create 250 000 jobs. The socialists will campaign with promises of increased incomes, reduced youth unemployment, creating the conditions for the recovery of medium and small businesses, “civic control” of institutions and “restoration of statehood”, whatever the last-mentioned is meant to mean.
In attempt to show that he is hip to what has been happening in the streets, Stanishev also has spoken of the party’s “give Bulgarian back to the citizens” campaign, to be launched on April 13. Already, Stanishev launched the party’s “citizens quota” from various walks of life, from opera singing to publishing. In the sometimes bizarre world of Bulgarian politics, few could have been that surprised when reports said that one of the names announced by Stanishev as from the non-partisan “citizens quota” was a member of GERB.
It is also no surprise that the BSP is hammering the theme of electricity and the energy industry, the issues that were used as the catalyst for the early 2013 street protests. In this, Stanishev would never fail to mention the socialists’ pet project of Belene, the Russian-linked nuclear power scheme shut down by GERB.
Stanishev also has been stepping up the profile of Oresharski, already a well-known name for having been finance minister in the 2005-2009 tripartite coalition government but who has lacked a prominent profile in more recent years. Oresharski, earlier in his political career, was with the right-wing Union of Democratic Forces and was named finance minister in the Stanishev government as a non-partisan figure, not a member of any of the three constituent parties.
According to Stanishev, Oresharski represents predictability, economic competence, effective implementation of the budget, social responsibility, growth and normal conditions for small and medium business. According to Borissov, Oresharski represents opportunism.
There is still one aspect to the socialists’ campaign that it has been telegraphing for months – building up the suspicion that the elections will not be run fairly. With a caretaker government in place, the socialists have changed their target if not their message.
This, in turn, appears to be a clear sign that whatever the result, and whatever messages sent by the electorate about the extent to which they have received and accepted – or otherwise – the messages of the two main rival parties, the drama is likely to continue well after the ballots are continued, and the battle lines kept in place before the new parliament is presented with a government to vote on.