What lies ahead for the Bulgarian Socialist Party’s Sergei Stanishev?

The resignation of Sergei Stanishev as leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party has left a number of questions open, including just what role he will have in the left-wing leadership and what will become of ambitions for him to become Bulgaria’s European Commissioner.

Stanishev, leader of the BSP since December 2001, announced on July 5 that he would step down as leader of the party, but said that he would remain at the head of the Coalition for Bulgaria and of the Party of European Socialists.

The “Coalition for Bulgaria” has existed in some form since 1991 and under that name since 2001. It is overwhelmingly dominated and led by the BSP, which has the lion’s share of the parliamentary group officially titled the Coalition for Bulgaria, while the name customarily also is used in elections – largely meaninglessly, because the group commonly is referred to just as the BSP, ignoring the puny parties placed in the token back seats of the political vehicle.

On the face of it, it is an oddity for Stanishev to be the head of the Coalition for Bulgaria, especially given that he reneged on his promise to remain in the National Assembly and not take up his seat in the European Parliament. In the short term, his move to the European Parliament means that the group in the National Assembly is led by someone who is not an MP. To add to this, as chairman of the Coalition for Bulgaria parliamentary group, Stanishev already has been succeeded by his designated replacement, Atanas Merdzhanov.

In turn, it should be underlined that in announcing his resignation, Stanishev hardly acknowledged failure – the BSP’s dismal performance in the European Parliament elections was only the latest defeat to which he has led the party in 13 years, although circumstances twice (in 2005 and 2013) allowed him to take it into government – but instead lavished blame outside the party, and by extension, himself.

Notably, in his July 5 address to the national council at which he said he would resign as BSP leader at a special congress on July 27, Stanishev hardly took any direct sideswipes at Georgi Purvanov’s ABC movement. Immediately after the BSP’s defeat in the European Parliament elections, a key talking point for the party was to blame Purvanov – Stanishev’s predecessor as BSP leader but who failed in a 2012 bid to grab back the party leadership after ending his stint as head of state – for taking votes away with his rival movement.

This lack of villification of Purvanov, with criticism focused mainly on GERB and the “betrayal” (though no names were mentioned) by ruling axis partner the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, has added fuel to speculation that Stanishev is envisaging a post-election broader coalition that would take in ABC, under the Coalition for Bulgaria banner. This also would address the awkwardness of a political patch-up job, given that months ago Stanishev and his cohorts insisted on the expulsion of Purvanov and his closest allies from the BSP.

There also remains the question of what will become of Stanishev’s ambitions to be Bulgaria’s next European Commissioner.

Time is running out for the nomination, which technically must be made by the current cabinet, however the nomination is arrived at – unilaterally by the government or as the result of consensus among the parties. The latter is supposedly what was meant to happen, after the June agreements on process, but lately such agreements have tended to have the lifespan of a fruitfly.

Some reports have suggested that Stanishev’s departure from the leadership post of the BSP is precisely part of some elaborate scheme to free him to take up the nomination as European Commissioner – notwithstanding all objections from the opposition that a losing party has no right to such a top post – while other suggest that Stanishev now stands on ice too thin to survive a claim to the post.

Merdzhanov, speaking to Bulgarian National Radio on July 6, said that he was assuming that Stanishev would not be the Bulgarian European Commissioner-designate, given their conversations of recent days.

Stanishev said on July 5 that he would remain at the forefront of the BSP campaign and sought to portray himself as a “unifier”. The latter would seem an odd claim given the large extent to which divisions within the BSP have been public since the European Parliament election defeat.

It may be that Stanishev envisages for himself a role as a kind of elder statesman of the party, an equivalent of the role that Ahmed Dogan has in the Movement for Rights and Freedoms that Dogan founded and led for so long before his January 2013 handover of the party leadership post to Lyutvi Mestan.

Stanishev has signalled his support for Dragomir Stoynev, currently minister of economy and energy in the soon-to-be-gone BSP cabinet and who was anointed a deputy leader of the BSP on July 5, to succeed him as BSP leader.

Whether Stoynev actually will get that post on July 27 remains an open question, as does the matter whether Stoynev is merely a decoy to draw fire pending the election of the actual intended successor, whoever that may be (the giddier of the Bulgarian-language media reports on the topic suggested that this may be Purvanov himself, a scenario that for now seems, to say the least, improbable).

Other names long since have appeared as the possible new leader of the BSP. One is that of Maya Manolova, the BSP MP whose combative abrasiveness towards GERB and other rivals may offer the party the semblance of new energy it needs. Other names are the current socialist Speaker of Parliament Mihail Mikov and current defence minister Angel Naidenov, as well as senior BSP MP Kornelia Ninova, MEP Iliyana Yotova and, perhaps inevitably, Roumen Ovcharov, the veteran among those sidelined by Stanishev in 2013. Also mentioned is Yanaki Stoilov, leader of the left-wing faction in the BSP.

At least one voice was skeptical about whether a change of BSP leader would really change anything.

Interviewed by daily 24 Chassa, political commentator Antonii Gulubov said: “The important question is whether the new name will signify a new way of behaving for the BSP. None of the names I hear suggests that this is going to be the case, because each of these people has worked alongside Stanishev and is more or less responsible for the state the country is in”.

Daniel Smilov, a political commentator who is also no fan of the BSP, said that Stanishev’s withdrawal as leader of the BSP would not pull the party out of its crisis, which had been brought about by the unsuccessful term of Plamen Oresharski, prime minister in the cabinet that has been in office since May 2013.

For the BSP’s rivals, it remains to be seen whether the Stanishev manouevre will be a benefit or a liability. At very least, the days remaining to the July 27 congress will now see the party preoccupied by a leadership battle, draining energy and raising emotions internally as the October 5 parliamentary elections also loom closer.

On the other hand, perhaps the only chance the BSP has to reinvigorate its electorate, to say nothing of trying to draw new voters, is in the facade of change.

Stanishev really is not going anywhere (probably, in any sense of that term) but his party will now try to play the only card it has to try to avert a defeat in October as thorough as that handed to it in May.



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

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), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.