Bulgarian Socialist Party seeks, well, red best-seller

Officially or otherwise, a number of candidates have emerged to succeed Sergei Stanishev at a Bulgarian Socialist Party congress on July 27 that will elect a new party leader.

There are about six, including the candidate that Stanishev wants to occupy the post, current economy and energy minister Dragomir Stoynev.

The candidates are a mixed bag in age and experience, none having tremendously impressive CVs, most of them career politicians with only some having patches of private sector experience.

The real question facing whoever wins will be whether he or she can unify and inspire a party, as well as its traditional and potential electorate, that have been in a steady arc of decline in the 13 years that Stanishev has led the party. (See below for figures on the BSP performance in National Assembly elections from 1997 to 2013.)

At the remove of 16 days before the congress, it is too early to try to predict who will win, but some assessments may be made, in looking at the candidates, at the kind of factors that will be at play in the process of choosing a winner.

To start with Stoynev. Born in May 1976, he has among the longest list of academic qualifications, all in economics, gained at universities in France leading up to a master’s degree in economics from the Sorbonne.

His career has been in the orbit of the state – in 2005 and 2006, he was employed in the office of then-president Georgi Purvanov, who was elected on a BSP ticket. Stoynev moved on to a post in the cabinet office, before spending 2007 to 2009 as economic adviser to then-prime minister Stanishev.

Dragomir Stoynev
With the ladies in red: Dragomir Stoynev

The 2009 national parliamentary election that saw the BSP defeated at the hands of Boiko Borissov’s centre-right GERB also saw Stoynev becoming an MP, before his appointment in May 2013 to the so-called “expert” cabinet that was to become the target of more than a year of public protests demanding its resignation.

In office, Stoynev has had to implement the policies on the energy sector, notably and controversially including the campaign against the foreign-owned electricity distribution companies (the issue around which anti-GERB protests were rallied in early 2013, that brought Borissov’s resignation when there was an incident of violence in Sofia), and the South Stream project, the awarding of the contract for the land component of which has opened Bulgaria to an infringement procedure by the European Commission.

It is not, however, the long-term implications of the soon-to-be-departed administration’s approach to the energy sector that will be a liability for Stoynev, but the resentment in some circles in the BSP that have been demanding change that all that a Stoynev election would amount to would be a more lightweight Stanishev clone – a party leader who would be the marionette of Stanishev, who has said that he wants to hold on to the chairmanship of the BSP-dominated “Coalition for Bulgaria” and of the EU-wide Party of European Socialists.

Purvanov, the former BSP leader now heading his own ABC movement in rivalry to the Stanishev BSP, has alleged that Stoynev was pushed forward in a deal involving coming up with a BSP candidate leader acceptable to hitherto ruling axis partner the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, in exchange for which the MRF would back a Stanishev bid to be Bulgaria’s European Commissioner.

In no particular order except perhaps in terms of media prominence, Maya Manolova is something of a contrast to Stoynev, if only in the forthrightness of her personality.

The combative abrasiveness of Manolova, a lawyer born in Kyustendil in May 1965, may well have contributed to her promotion to deputy speaker in the National Assembly elected in May 2013, the third time she was elected as an MP.

Whatever the ideological differences, there is something of the Sarah Palin about Manolova, that could play well to the BSP’s traditonal less-educated electorate.

Manolova, who studied history in Moscow and economics and law at the University of National and World Economy, owes something of her advancement in the party to Stanishev. She became Kyustendil leader of the BSP in 2008 after the then-leader, Ivo Atanassov, was dropped after falling out with Stanishev.

She was among the first to confirm her availability for the party leadership, bludgeoning home the message that the BSP was “not a feudal party” in which successors were anointed rather than elected.

Maya Manolova
Bulgaria’s pittbull in lipstick: Maya Manolova

For all her aggression and sassiness, not one to be cowed by the months of loud jeering by anti-government protesters and always ready to swing the battleaxe at Borissov and GERB, Manolova is unlikely to have what it takes to be the “unifier” that the BSP seems to need, nor a figure to appeal to the more sophisticated, better-educated and better-off urban demographic that the leftists lost – to the extent they ever had them – many years ago.

Speaking to local media, Manolova appeared keen to underline her combative qualities, implying them as advantages over Stoynev.

“We have no time to learn,” Manolova said, “and another question is what kind of leader is needed – a technocrat, or a fighter who can lead the BSP and win battles”.

She underlined her track record in her great efforts to produce a (deeply controversial) new electoral law and to save the “honour” of the government in the face of protesters’ demands for resignation, and in the fight against GERB in the National Assembly and the studios of television talk shows.

Apparently also capable of channelling Thatcher as well as Palin, Manolova said that she wanted to see the BSP united “and with a strong straight backbone, not stuffed in the corner”.

Another confirmed candidate is Yanaki Stoilov, a leader of the left-wing faction in the party, a career politician who has been an MP six times since being born in Veliko Turnovo in September 1958 and subsequently graduating in law from Sofia University.

Yanaki Stoilov
Left behind? Yanaki Stoilov

In the Stanishev establishment, Stoilov, although he currently is a deputy party leader, has never quite made it to the top. He was passed over for a cabinet appointment and rumours that he was to be named Speaker also came to naught. But again, a Stoilov choice might mean a further hard-left swing for a party that in the best of scenarios, from its point of view, has no room to manoeuvre. Or, if you prefer the somewhat more melodramatic terminology of another of its controversial MPs, Strahil Angelov, a party that is in free fall.

Not confirmed as a candidate for the BSP leadership but widely expected to enter the field is Kornelia Ninova, who has notched up one of the longer CVs among the candidates since her birth in January 1969 in the village of Krushovitsa near Vratsa.

A Sofia University law graduate, she has been an apprentice judge, a legal consultant for Sofia municipality and telecommunications firm BTK, was employed by Techomex, was deputy minister of economy and energy, and president of the board of governors of Bulgartabac.

Ninova has been an MP since 2009, and like Manolova, has been one of the BSP’s point people in its parliamentary group in numerous sharp exchanges on the floor of the House with GERB.

Kornelia Ninova
Little red book: Kornelia Ninova

She is said to have a wide base of potential support, including in the influential Sofia chapter, but the capital city could take another route, opting for Zhelyu Boychev as the candidate of the young.

Boychev (38), a graduate in agricultural economics from the University of National and World Economy, is said to have a support base among those who see in him a generational change for the party (and presumably those who do not notice or do not mind a passing resemblance to the young Richard M Nixon).

Zhelyu Boychev
Would you buy a used car from this man? Zhelyu Boychev

But as the contest heats up, with behind-the-scenes dirty fighting that reportedly includes exchanges of allegations about links to the “oligarchy” or of covert deals with the MRF, the BSP congress also could opt for the supposed “safe hands” approach, of placing the leadership in the hands of more experienced politicians to put it on an even keel.

Even keels are meant to be the business of Angel Naidenov, born in September 1958 and who qualified at the Varna maritime academy as a navigation engineer. The government website states Naidenov’s profession as sea captain, though it remains unclear whether he ever has had a command.

The defence minister in the current cabinet also qualified in national defence at the GS Rakovski military academy and was employed in “state economic enterprises” before being mayor of Dimitrovgrad (a communist show town) from 1990 to 1994 and regional governor of Haskovo from 1995 to 1997. His record as a six-time MP is matched, among the candidates, only by Stoilov.

Angel Naidenov
Angels and demons? Angel Naidenov

There have been mixed signals, including from himself, whether Naidenov is or will be a candidate. If he emerges as one, an interesting dimension would be the reports that he has a close personal friendship with Manolova.

Another name frequently mentioned but routinely denied as a party leader candidate is that of Mihail Mikov, the socialist Speaker of the Parliament that will be prorogued on August 6.

With dissolving close on the horizon, Mikov, a four-time MP born in June 1960, may not be set for the same seniority in a position in the next Parliament, if GERB’s expectations of victory come to pass.

Mihail Mikov
Speaker, or forever hold your…oh, never mind. Mihail Mikov

Mikov has cabinet experience, having been put in to the Stanishev government from 2008 to 2009 to replace Roumen Petkov as interior minister, and extremely rarely for the current BSP, actually has some popularity outside its electoral ranks. Why this is so is unclear, whether it is the sheen of high office or for his occasional witticisms amid the vicious gladiatorial skirmishes in the 42nd National Assembly.

There are others, of course, Georgi Kadiev, something of a hardy annual in leadership challenges and who was an exception in resigning from the National Assembly in response to the post-European Parliament election crisis in the BSP.

But Kadiev never seems to have been able to capture the imagination within the party. It may be that Stanishev has held on to the leadership for 13 years in spite of the party’s many defeats in part because no one ever emerged as an effective leader of internal opposition to him (and never let it be forgot that Stanishev also managed to see off a challenge by Purvanov, who tried to get his old BSP leadership post back after completing his terms as head of state).

Purvanov and future relations with him may be a factor in the choice of leader. There have been broad hints that Stanishev wants to find a way to create either a pre- or post-election broad coalition that, if not bringing Purvanov back into the fold, would create a fold large enough for all.

Against this background, this may be an explanation why Kiril Dobrev of the Sofia BSP is backing Stoynev, in spite of Dobrev’s troubled relations in the past with Stanishev, not only because Dobrev’s father Nikolai was close to Purvanov but also because of the hope of reuniting the party with one of its successful figures of the past.

For the BSP, there is little time to resolve its leadership question. For now, the party seems only to be creaking along the familiar and rusty tracks to a drubbing on October 5 at the hands of GERB.

The BSP’s electoral track record in recent National Assembly elections:

1997: 939 308 votes, 58 seats, 22.1 per cent of the vote, with voter turnout at 62.9 per cent
2001: 783 372 votes, 48 seats, 17.1 per cent of the vote, with voter turnout at 67 per cent
2005: 1 129 126 votes, 82 seats, 31 per cent of the vote, with voter turnout at 55.8 per cent
2009: 748 114 votes, 40 seats, 17.7 per cent of the vote, with voter turnout at 66.2 per cent
2013: 942 541 votes, 84 seats, 26.6 per cent of the vote, with voter turnout at 51.3 per cent

The BSP in Bulgaria’s three European Parliament elections so far:

2007: 414 786 votes, five seats, 21.41 per cent of the vote, voter turnout 28.6 per cent
2009: 476 618 votes, four seats, 18.5 per cent of the vote, voter turnout 37.5 per cent
2014: 424 037 votes, four seats, 18.9 per cent of the vote, voter turnout 36.1 per cent




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.