Expect, on the night of May 25 as Bulgaria’s political parties hold their ritual post-results news conferences, to hear from most about how they really won. Even if, hardly for the first time in recent Bulgarian politics, everyone loses.
In domestic terms, this is what happened in the national parliamentary elections in Bulgaria in May 2013. Former ruling party GERB got the most votes but in the 42nd National Assembly, found itself with only foes ranged against it. A ruling axis was formed with the mandate handed to the second-ranked Bulgarian Socialist Party, and the rest is history – or hysteria, as a government stillborn in credibility terms unleashed the blunder that was the appointment of Delyan Peevski to head the State Agency for National Security, in turn sparking many months of anti-government protests.
Demands, supported by the majority of Bulgarians, for fresh early parliamentary elections failed, which goes a long way to explaining why campaigning in the European Parliament elections has been overwhelmingly about domestic issues.
The contest among the parties has been a form of reality show, divorced from the realities of politics and policies at EU level, divorced even – in most cases – from discussions on just what it is that the chosen 17 MEPs from Bulgaria will do when they go to the new European Parliament.
Arguably not as vicious and dirty as the campaign before the May 2013 elections, if only slightly, allowing for the trading of insults being common currency in latter-day Bulgarian politics, the campaign has been characterised by vague and generalised slogans. The Sofia Globe, in compiling its daily elections campaign notebook from May 4 to 22, frequently struggled to find any concrete messages from the various players.
Lest anyone rush to pronounce the anti-government protests dead, though indeed for months turnout has dwindled below the point of being worth reporting (with one exception, the 333 protest), their lasting effect has been to turn the May 25 European Parliament vote into a referendum on the current ruling axis.
In turn, however, the polls indicate that the main parties of the ruling axis, the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, will have a combined vote that will outnumber that for GERB, even if Boiko Borissov’s party again gets the most votes.
The picture is not uncomplicated. The anti-government protests have been about ousting the government that came to power in May 2013 and were not, all conspiracy theories aside, about restoring GERB to power. A vote on May 25 2014 to express the desire to see this government must, of course, be cast against the parties of the ruling axis, but it is doubtful that this will translate into a coherent bloc of voters for GERB.
There is a further risk to GERB. Given that various polls, however questionable the reliability of several, suggest a neck-and-neck race, Borissov’s party may be tested in getting out its vote. The risk is that GERB’s electorate may see no point in going to the ballot booths to hand the party the largest share of the vote, but only to see a repeat of May 2013 as GERB’s rivals make common cause to claim victory.
To any close observer of Bulgarian politics, it is overwhelmingly obvious that no one who supported the anti-government protests from June 2013 onwards would cast their ballot for Bulgaria Without Censorship (BWC), the party formed around former talk show host Nikolai Barekov. Just one reason for this, among several, is the hostility of the media with which he was associated towards the anti-government protests.
But to time-travel to the aftermath of the results of May 25, it would take, at very least, a landslide anti-BSP-MRF vote to revive the impetus of the campaign to pressure this government, which advances grimly on in spite of opinion polls show a majority lack of public confidence, to step down.
Nor can it be forgotten that if there was one relatively coherent thread of argument in the campaigns ahead of Bulgaria’s European Parliament elections, it was the dispute over energy policy – South Stream, energy independence from Russia, and the ruling axis’s war on the three foreign-owned electricity distribution companies.
A government so determined to press ahead with its imperatives in energy policy will hardly gracefully step aside in the face of huge public disapproval, perhaps especially when those within its ranks apparently persuade themselves and seek to persuade others that they have done wonderful things about electricity prices.
Though the case may be that GERB scores no decisive victory, that the BSP and MRF again run second and third, that Barekov will crow over whatever victories BWC scores, and the Reformist Bloc will reap a scant harvest after dissipating its potential, expect no resignations of significance.
For one politician in Bulgaria, Sergei Stanishev, there is a special stake in this election, because not only is he ticket leader for his party but also leads the Party of European Socialists. At EU level, a second place for PES may not necessarily result in immediate political decapitation for Stanishev, because weeks and months remain of horse-trading about the future holding of power and positions of significance in EU institutions including the European Parliament, the European Commission and presidency of the European Council.
It is not impossible for PES to seek to outflank the European People’s Party, and perhaps Stanishev may be in the same position he was after May 2013 – again having failed to lead his party to decisive victory, his pattern of more than a decade, but ending up with the socialists holding power.
But on the night of May 25, we shall hear from Borissov, Stanishev, MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan and BWC Barekov about how they have achieved glorious victory and a popular vote of confidence, and the only discordant notes – perhaps including from these parties as well – will be about alleged election day abuses.
At this writing, with just more than 24 hours to go before midnight on May 23 brings the beginning of the “Day of Contemplation” on which canvassing is forbidden, it appears that the significance of Bulgaria’s European Parliament elections will be as a landmark, but not a turning point.