Bulgaria elections 2015: The battle for Varna

In the Black Sea city of Varna, voters in Bulgaria’s mayoral and municipal elections on October 25 have a choice of returning Ivan Portnih as their mayor or opting for one of his nine rivals for the post.

The candidate of Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB party, Portnih is seeking a second term in office after a second-round victory in July 2013 mayoral by-elections that followed the resignation of long-time mayor Kiril Yordanov. In 2013, Portnih pulled off the feat of defeating rival Hristo Bozov in the second round after Bozov had won 30 per cent to Pornih’s 26.89 per cent of votes in the first round.

Yordanov is among the nine rivals, and wants his old job back. Yordanov was mayor of Varna from 1999 to 2013, and in the 2011 municipal elections switched allegiance from the Bulgarian Socialist Party to GERB. Yordanov was forced out of office in 2013 amid large-scale protests in the city, which also included the self-immolation of Plamen Goranov. Yordanov won a second-round victory in 2011. This time around, he is the nominee of an initiative committee bearing his name (a fact that one local media outlet, the political allegiances of which no doubt lie elsewhere, described as “arrogant”).

This is one of the notable aspects of the 2015 elections in Varna. One of the others is that the list of mayoral candidates includes not one but two former members of the ill-fated “Oresharski” cabinet of 2013/14.

One is Danail Papazov, a former sea captain and former chief of the Port of Varna, who was transport minister at the time of the BSP-Movement for Rights and Freedoms ruling axis. In the 2015 mayoral elections in Varna, Papazov is the candidate of the Life for Varna local coalition.

The other former cabinet minister taking a tilt at the Varna mayor’s chair is Aneliya Klisarova, nominated by an initiative committee but widely seen as the candidate of the BSP, which has not nominated a mayoral candidate. A medical graduate and formerly twice a city councillor for the BSP, she briefly was a BSP MP in 2013 before being named education minister. This year she is the only one of the mayoral candidates not to also have registered as a candidate city councillor.

Chavdar Trifonov’s candidacy is supported by four out of the five parties in the national Reformist Bloc coalition – the odd one out, the Union of Democratic Forces, has endorsed Portnih. A graduate in finance who has been running agribusiness companies, Trifonov also was a candidate in the 2013 mayoral by-elections, running third with 17.3 per cent.

Other candidates are Dimitar Karbov, a former MP for Volen Siderov’s far-right Ataka party who quit Ataka in 2011, and in the October 2015 elections is the mayoral candidate of Valeri Simeonov’s National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria. Karbov also was a mayoral candidate in Varna in 2011, getting just more than three per cent of the vote.

Radostin Morfov, the candidate of the Movement for Radical Change Bulgarian Spring, also has an electoral track record, but not really one to boast about. In 2013, he was the mayoral candidate of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party. Out of the nine candidates, he won the least votes, a total of 595, or less than one per cent. The party in whose name he is standing is led by an independent MP, Velizar Enchev, who was with the Patriotic Front in the National Assembly but resigned from the coalition after it agreed on a deal to support the November 2014 coalition government headed by Boiko Borissov.

Georgi Purvanov’s socialist breakaway party ABC has nominated Meglena Temelkova-Bakalova, a law graduate and lecturer at Varna Free University, the National Republican Party has nominated Mladen Mladenov and the Varna Coalition’s candidate is Kostadin Kostadinov, a former head of the Regional History Museum in Dobrich and author of several books and documentaries on historical topics. Kostadinov formerly was a member of nationalist VMRO but quit after falling out with the leadership. He was a candidate in the 2011 mayoral elections, running fifth with less than nine per cent of the vote.

Portnih, up against these rivals, has opted to stand on his record and the investment projects that he says will change Varna for the better. Conversely, of course, these are the very issues on which his rivals attack him. In a television debate among several mayoral candidates in Varna, for which Portnih did not show up, Yordanov dwelt on the illegal construction and other abuses in the city, which he blamed on Portnih, but which nonetheless was an ironic line of attack from someone who had been in the mayor’s chair for the 14 years before Portnih.

“Our goal is for change to reach every entrance to the home of every resident,” Portnih told an election meeting recently, going on to list plans for a thorough overhaul of the city’s main thoroughfares, for new playgrounds, and for work to start on renovating the landmark Asparouhov Bridge.

However, a liability for Portnih could exist among those who did not approve of his actions before, after and during the fatal extensive flooding in the Asparouhovo district of Varna last year; another liability will be the fact that, in the form of Yordanov, Papazov and Klisarova, he has rivals who have had long-term and in some cases national exposure – leaving aside the merits or otherwise of the individuals and for that matter of the exposure – and the worry that in 2013, in the first round he came only second. All of this makes Varna, on election night on October 25 2015, one of the battlegrounds to watch.


Bulgaria’s 2015 municipal elections and national referendum: Factfile

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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.