The process of electing a new leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party at the special congress to be held on July 27 is likely to be a long one, with 17 candidates now in the field.
Most are expected to drop out early on and declare for others, in deals negotiated privately, but with the handful that will remain are likely to prove enough to push voting to a second round.
The leadership election has been prompted by BSP leader Sergei Stanishev having announced after the Bulgarian European Parliament elections that he would step down. Leader of the BSP for 13 years, the longest anyone has held that post since the end of the era of the predecessor Bulgarian Communist Party, Stanishev led the party into dismal defeat in the May vote, as he had done consistently before.
Now an MEP, Stanishev appears on the list of 17 candidates but is expected to decline the nomination.
Those currently seen as having the strongest chances are Dragomir Stoynev, a minister in the outgoing cabinet; Mihail Mikov, Speaker of the soon-to-be-defunct 42nd National Assembly; and MPs Maya Manolova and Kornelia Ninova.
The rest are a mixed bag in terms of seniority and weight in the party, and variously may have been put forward either as a signal of future ambitions, or in the hope of a trade-off, or in a mooted “compromise candidate” scenario.
The rest of the nominees are Atanas Merdzhanov, parliamentary group leader after Stanishv quit the National Assembly; Stanishev ally Borislav Gutsanov, party veteran and failed Sofia mayoral candidate Brigo Asparouhov; Plovdiv BSP strongman Georgi Guergov; perennial candidate Georgi Kadiev; veteran Dora Yankova; left-wing leader Yanaki Stoilov; Kostadin Paskalev; Krassimir Premyanov; Krassimir Yankov; Milko Bagdasarov; and well-known actor and failed candidate to be vice-president of Bulgaria Stefan Danailov.
Ahead of the congress, it is not yet known whether voting will be by secret ballot, as some within the leadership want. Reports even suggested that those in favour of a secret ballot also want voting to take place in a “dark room”, presumably to prevent anyone peeping.
The BSP congress is taking place three days after the National Assembly voted to accept the resignation of the cabinet put in place with the mandate handed to the BSP after Bulgaria’s May 2013 early parliamentary elections.
The failure of that cabinet, troubled relations with ruling axis partner the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and the latest electoral defeat are all combining to compound the misery in the party.
With Stanishev receding in importance, although he insists that he will remain head of the broader “Coalition for Bulgaria” group in which the BSP predominates and under which banner it has fought recent elections, the leadership race has seen more open criticism of his handling of the party.
There is also debate in the party about dumping the Coalition for Bulgaria brand and formula as a failed strategy – which would have the side-effect of making Stanishev’s remaining domestic political role meaningless, a side-effect of which those taking part in the debate may be mindful.
Stanishev, who remains leader of the EU-wide Party of European Socialists (which ran second EU-wide in the May European Parliament elections), initially pushed forward Stoynev as his intended successor.
However, there are theories – pushed by those such as Manolova, who is styling herself as the “outsider” candidate not really wanted by the establishment at the BSP’s Positano Street headquarters – that the real candidate of the establishment is Mikov.
Whatever his fate is to be, victory or oblivion, Stoynev has been saying that the BSP needs to affirm its identity and to take part in a future coalition government only if that government would be implementing the BSP programme.
This touches on a sensitive point in BSP ranks, the feeling that in the May 2013-July 2014 coalition, the MRF was in the driving seat and even was the real decision-maker in bringing down the cabinet.
In the debate on the resignation of the cabinet, some BSP MPs openly blamed the MRF for the collapse of the cabinet. Notably, while the BSP group was supposed to vote in favour of the resignation, some broke ranks. Of the 55 BSP MPs who voted on the resignation of the cabinet, 40 voted in favour, eight voted against and seven abstained. (And the BSP has 83 MPs, meaning that for whatever reason, 28 did not show up.)
For the rest, Mikov is standing on a platform of re-motivating the BSP electorate to actually come to vote, campaigning to win over the intelligentsia (who for decades have voted centre-right or not at all), and the cliche of improved communication of what the party stands for and does.
Stoilov says he is against backroom deals, Manolova wants to return the initiative in the party to the grassroots and Ninova says she wants to broaden the party support base and actively involve groups such as left-wing intelligentsia, co-operatives, workers, farmers, trade unionists and other constituencies whose natural political home should be with a socialist party.
As for significant endorsements, Manolova has won the stated support of Roumen Ovcharov, formerly Sofia leader of the BSP and still a voice that has resonance in the party.
As vague and, in some cases, downright meaningless as most of these intentions on the part of the candidates sound, they will help – along with internal party power factors – propel one of the names into the leader’s chair in Positano Street.
That leader, the party already has agreed, to draft the party’s election platform, with the special congress doing no more than adopting a broad manifesto of a few pages of guidelines for policy should the BSP return to power in the driving seat of a new coalition government, a scenario that for the moment seems somewhat improbable.
(Main photo: The sculpture outside the BSP headquarters in Positano Street, as redecorated by anti-government protesters in November 2013)
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