Bulgaria elections 2015: The battle for Plovdiv

Voters in Plovdiv might be well advised to keep some time open on November 1 – conventional wisdom in Bulgaria’s second city, where incumbent mayor Ivan Totev faces 15 challengers, is that the mayoral elections on October 25 will produce a second round.

Totev, the candidate of Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s centre-right GERB party, has been mayor of Plovdiv since 2011, when he won a narrow second-round victory against Slavcho Atanassov, who at the time was backed by a range of left- and right-wing parties and coalitions.

Ivan Totev. Photo: podtepeto.com
Ivan Totev. Photo: podtepeto.com

Atanassov was mayor of Plovdiv from 2007 to 2011, at the time winning a first-round victory with 53 per cent after being nominated by nationalists VMRO (now part of the Patriotic Front coalition at national level) with the support of GERB. In 2015, Atanassov is the nominee of the Patriotic Front.

Slavcho Atanassov. Photo: podtepeto.com
Slavcho Atanassov. Photo: podtepeto.com

Among Totev’s other main challengers include Zdravko Dimitrov, who was expelled from GERB’s parliamentary group for confirming that he would stand for mayor of Plovdiv against the party’s official candidate. Dimitrov has the backing of the Reformist Bloc and, controversially, the very public backing of the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in the city, Plovdiv Metropolitan Nikolai.

Zdravko Dimitrov. Photo: podtepeto.com
Zdravko Dimitrov. Photo: podtepeto.com

One local poll, the veracity of which will be confirmed or not on October 25, sees the Union for Plovdiv’s Dani Kanazireva as headed for a second round against Totev. An advocate by profession whose academic qualifications include studies at Cambridge, a doctorate in constitutional law and who had a study trip to the US in 2014 courtesy of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, Kanazireva founded the Union for Plovdiv in 2011 with herself as president and as its mayoral canditate, winning a place as a Plovdiv city councillor. In the mayoral elections in 2011, she won 7.4 per cent of the vote in a field, which then as now, included 16 candidates.

Dani Kanazireva. Photo: podtepeto.com
Dani Kanazireva. Photo: podtepeto.com

However, in that first round in 2011, Totev got 35.5 per cent and Atanassov 25.48 per cent – which is why some suggest that 2015 will see a rematch between Totev and Atanassov.

But predictions should be avoided. Zdravko Dimitrov should not be written off as a possible second-round contender.

georgi gergov 2

On the left side of the political spectrum, there is Georgi Gergov, who apart from his political identity is perhaps best known for his ownerships of the Plovdiv Fair and Tzum in Sofia. In 2014, after Sergei Stanishev stepped down from the Bulgarian Socialist Party leadership after that party’s latest poor showing in national elections, Gergov was among those who tried for the party leadership, although he was eliminated at an early stage of the process. Among BSP mayoral candidates in Plovdiv in recent years, Gergov is arguably the one with the highest public profile.

The other candidates include municipal council chairman Ventsislav Kaymakanov (Movement for Rights and Freedoms), Ilko Nikolov (Plovdiv Tomorrow coalition), Petranka Vladimirova (United Greens), Atanas Panchov (Bulgaria Without Censorship), Georgi Ilchev (ABC, a socialist breakaway from the BSP and thus likely to partly split the left-wing vote in Plovdiv), Krassimir Kutsarov (Glas Naroden), Nikola Ranchev (Movement for Radical Change), Pavel Shopov (Ataka), Angel Chakarov (Movement for Social Humanism), Hristo Alexiev (New Alternative) and Yasar Asan (Solidarity).

Like his counterpart in Sofia, Totev has the blessing and the curse of incumbency, but in both cases, even more sharply so.

During Totev’s term in office, the city has won the contest to be named European Capital of Culture 2019. A number of infrastructure and other projects have been developed and in some cases, completed – everything from the new velodrome to the revamped musical fountains. The Kapana district has been turned from a forlorn corner near the central part of the city to a vibrant hub of trendy cultural life. Like his party leader Borissov (whose mantle, it is rumoured, Totev harbours ambitions to inherit one day), Totev seems fond of seeing things built and opening them. For Borissov’s highways, Totev has a spruced-up central shopping street.

But politics, especially local politics, is not as simple as that. His rivals question the spending on the projects and their quality. The musical fountains’ pool developed cracks, necessitating repairs not long after they opened. The project to renovate and expand Plovdiv’s zoo is enmeshed in local controversy. Kapana may be a success story (although it is questionable whether Totev really could take the credit for the initiative) but the Old Town, the city’s most famous pride and joy, hardly has been the subject of any initiatives to revitalise it. Then there was the case of the Ancient Theatre being rented out for a private birthday party, with chalga playing till the wee hours, foreign tourists being turned away by beefy and surly security types, and it turned out that it had been let out for a mere 3000 leva, and Totev failed to promise that it would not happen again…enough to make proud Plovdivchani harrumph and grind their teeth.

Ahead of the October 25 vote, the state of Plovdiv as a political battleground was clear. While in the weeks before the election, there was nary of sign of campaigning in Sofia (that changed in the final week before the vote), there were considerably more competing posters in Plovdiv. In the local media, the fight was on too – any number of headlines about “Slavcho” and “Zdravko” and just what they had to say that day.

plovdiv posters 5
Photos: Clive Leviev-Sawyer

plovdiv posters 4

And then of course there is the Metropolitan.

Plovdiv Metropolitan Nikolai photo podtepeto com

So fiery about his declared allegiance to Dimitrov has Nikolai been, blessing him, praying for him and praising him as the epitome of Orthodoxy, the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Plovdiv apparently felt so strongly about matters as to take the unusual step of absenting himself from celebrations on September 6, Unification Day and thus the Day of Plovdiv, so that he did not have to be seen anywhere near Totev.

To all of this background, no more need be added; the narrative, no doubt, will resume on election night, and again before November 1.


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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.