Bulgaria elections 2015: The battle for Plovdiv – Phase II

Bulgaria’s second city Plovdiv will be a major political background, with the city the largest in the country to go to a November 1 second round in mayoral elections – and with the stakes high for Ivan Totev, mayor since 2011.

Totev is the candidate of Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s party, GERB. Taking Totev’s scalp would be a victory of symbolic significance for parties vanquished by GERB in other major cities, and spoil GERB’s hopes of holding the mayoral chairs in all Bulgaria’s major cities.

Up against Totev is Slavcho Atanassov, a former mayor who is the nominee of the nationalist Patriotic Front, made up of the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria and Krassimir Karakachanov’s VMRO.

The November 1 2015 vote will be a rematch for Totev and Atanassov.

In the 2011 mayoral elections in Plovdiv, there were 16 candidates in the first round. At the first round, Totev got 35.52 per cent and Atanassov 25.48 per cent. Totev’s second-round victory was narrow – 50.84 per cent (70 871 votes) to Atanassov’s 49.16 per cent (68 533).

In the October 25 2015 mayoral elections in Plovdiv, there were again 16 candidates. With an official final result pending, but with the number of votes counted by 3pm on October 26, Totev was seen as having got something close to 39.5 per cent and Atanassov just more than 21 per cent.

As voters in Plovdiv are asked to return to the polls to decide who will be mayor, much will ride on overt or informal declarations of support from the candidate mayors, and their parties and coalitions, knocked out at the first round. Further, there is obviously no guarantee that the electorates of the failed mayoral candidates will take their advice how to vote – or whether to vote at all.

Of the defeated mayoral candidates, Dani Kanazireva (of a local coalition) ran third with about 14 per cent, the Reformist Bloc’s Zdravko Dimitrov with just more than 10 per cent, and the Bulgarian Socialist Party’s Georgi Gergov with just more than seven per cent.

One of the factors this coming Sunday, when the contest will be between the candidate of a centre-right party and that of a nationalist coalition, will be whether Reformist Bloc voters would switch to the GERB candidate. But the fact that GERB and the Reformist Bloc are the main partners in the national coalition government does not necessarily have a causal effect on the local politics of Plovdiv, or anywhere else for that matter.

The group with the highest motivation to bring down Totev, if need by lending its support – overtly or covertly – to Atanassov is the BSP, in recent years so often trounced at the hands of GERB in presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections. Of course, there are other parties with a similar motivation, such as Ataka, but locally as nationally, Siderov’s party has scant political clout, and given the history of political estrangement, may well hate the Patriotic Front more than it does GERB. Voters of this kind are more likely than anything else to find something else to do than to visit the ballot boxes this coming Sunday.

slavcho atanassov and ivan totev podtepeto com

On election night, October 25, and the following morning, Totev and Atanassov were quick in resuming their campaigns.

Totev said, “I want, in seven days, Plovdiv to come out and say a powerful ‘yes’ to the new, modern and developing Plovdiv, the city that will be European Capital of Culture, the city which is the most popular cultural destination, the city that is developing”.

Speaking to reporters, Totev blamed the outcome of the first round on low voter turnout and the wide field of 16 candidate mayors. He added that for months, there had been a smear campaign against him, with rival candidates all against him, including in the media, he said.

Totev also pointed to complacency among voters that GERB would win in Plovdiv at the first round.

Asked whether he expected a second-round victory and whether he expected everyone to unite against him in the second round, Totev said, “if politics was about mathematics, all mathematicians would be politicians…I expect a difference of more than 40 per cent between me and Slavcho Atanassov in the second round”.

Responding to Atanassov’s October 25 repeat of a call for an election debate between the two second-round candidates (Atanassov accused Totev of “hiding”), Totev said that the conversation about the future of the city should be in Plovdiv, not between the two of them.

Totev outlined what he saw as the options facing voters, including “a Plovdiv of Gospodari na Efira (popular satirical television show Lords of the Airwaves) or a Plovdiv in the granite hall of the Cabinet building”, the latter a reference to his involvement with the ruling party.

In a direct reference to Atanassov having been his predecessor as mayor, Totev said that in the previous term, Plovdiv had been sucked dry by several people and turned into a closed city. His Plovdiv, according to Totev, was one on the European map.

He told the news conference that he was starting consultations with other parties, beginning with Kanazireva’s Cause Plovdiv, and predicted a stable centre-right coalition in the municipal council, victory for himself on November 1, and victory for GERB in the six district mayoral elections that also go to run-offs on Sunday.

Ivan Totev. Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer
Ivan Totev. Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer

On the first-round election night, Atanassov exuded confidence.

Ebullient in his remarks to reporters, Atanassov, an experience politician who appears to know something about keeping up political appearances, said, “yes, I am glad”.

“I expect at the second round much more support,” Atanassov said, adding that he would not be making deals with other political forces but relied on the support of “all Plovdiv” regardless of people’s political affiliations.

Atanassov, in spite of his defeat in 2011, has a memory of victory – in 2007, when he was the joint candidate of the VMRO and GERB, he won at the first round with 53 per cent.

“I am convinced that on Sunday I will receive the wider approval of the citizens,” he said, describing himself as a “majoritarian personality”.

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

He called on Plovdiv’s voters to turn out, “because only in this way can attempts to manipulate the vote be prevented”.

“You remember what happened four years ago. Let it not happen again. The example from today is clear – there was a certain scheme. At several polling stations, cases of ballots filled in beforehand arrived, in favour of a certain political force, it knows who it is.”

Repeating his call for a one-on-one debate (the “stop hiding” remark, addressed to Totev), Atanassov said that Totev’s result at the first round was a slap for the policies that had been conducted in Plovdiv in the past four years.

“The fact is that in all major cities, GERB won hands-down, and only here it did not. So people’s trust has not been one, even though the city became European Capital of Culture,” Atanassov said.

(Main photo: podtepeto.com)



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.