Bulgaria’s presidential election guessing game

The meaty hand at the end of the burly arm of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov has quite the experience with pairs of scissors. In his years in office, he’s cut enough ribbons to qualify him for some midway point between municipal mayoralty and monarchy.

Will Borissov be cutting ribbons as his country’s head of state after the third week of January 2017? That’s the question, among several about Bulgaria’s forthcoming presidential elections, that has everyone – well, almost everyone, from the media to political pundits, leaving out those too disillusioned with the tawdry theatre of Bulgarian politics to bother to vote this autumn – guessing.

In contrast to campaigns for elections across the Atlantic, where runs at the presidency are on political ultra-marathon scale, the runup to the Bulgarian presidential election on November 6 is promising to be Hobbesian – poor, nasty, brutish and short.

In the case of most political parties and coalitions represented in Bulgaria’s National Assembly, including Borissov’s own centre-right GERB, the presidential candidates have not been announced. The exception is a candidacy born of an alliance of convenience between a nationalist coalition and a party of related ilk, meaning that two out of the eight political forces in Parliament will be sharing an election ticket.

It would take an encyclopeadiac-length tract to record all of Borissov’s weathercock statements on his party’s candidate for the presidency, to succeed incumbent Rossen Plevneliev – elected on a GERB ticket in 2011 – who, for personal reasons, has not made himself available for a second term.

Over several months, Borissov repeatedly has stated that he will not be his party’s candidate, and also has hinted that he might be. He and his most senior party lieutenants have repeatedly postponed the date on which GERB will announce its presidential candidate. The current month, not date, for this revelation is September.

Borissov has said that he would not be available to serve as head of state because he has work to complete as head of government. More recently, in the past few days, he has sketched out the ideal profile of a Bulgarian president for the post-Crimea, migration crisis, terrorism-wracked era, with the characteristics of a person that may, in the fond imaginings of Borissov’s followers and perhaps even in his own self-image, match those of Borissov himself.

One of the reasons that Borissov has stated for not announcing a candidate was his, perhaps feigned, indignation and weariness with the media persisting in asking him about the matter. At one point, Radan Kanev, leader of a minority right-wing opposition party the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, told reporters that the reason that GERB did not announce its candidate was that it did not have one.

As if to counter this slight (in Bulgarian political behaviour, no comment nor incident is too trivial to not be worth blathering into microphones about), GERB’s top leadership echelon insisted that they had a candidate for president and vice-president, but still did not say who they were.

Speculation, that wastrel of a distracting companion on the winding road to perdition, had it that the candidate would be Deputy Prime Minister in charge of EU funds, Tomislav Donchev. Described by Borissov, a few months ago, as a “loyal soldier”, Donchev was seen as a probably pick because he was less likely than Plevneliev – formerly a Borissov cabinet minister – to take on an independent public life of his own.

Later, the name being floated was that of Dimitar Nikolov, whose landslide victories in mayoral contests in the Black Sea city of Bourgas are of the stuff of recent Bulgarian lore. The bet appeared to be that, similarly, Nikolov would be Borissov’s man in the offices of the Presidency, having got there on a wave of victory of tsunami-like proportions, Bourgas-style.

At the end of July, Borissov revived the theme, not unprecedented but also not fully adhered to in Bulgarian politics, that presidential election contests should be a battle among the leaders of political parties. (In recent weeks, he has not been first to raise this idea; so did Kornelia Ninova, elected in May as the leader of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, who challenged Borissov to stand – even though she has said repeatedly that she will not be the BSP’s presidential candidate.)

Borissov said that his party had had two “wonderful candidates two weeks ago” (noticeably, a point on the timeline somewhat later than GERB’s claims that the candidacy had been settled), but he had now decided that they were not the kind of rapid-reaction people the head of state’s office needed, “people to bang on the table to defend our interests”. (Presumably, Borissov did not intend to conjure an image of Nikita Kruschev, wielding his shoe at the UN in 1960; unfortunately, at least in my mind, he did).

Bulgaria’s President, Borissov reminded, was also its Commander-in-Chief. That was why the candidate should have the right qualities, “given the new critical conditions facing the world”.

That Borissov may be the candidate has been marked in comments, to varying degrees, in recent days by his Interior Minister, and acute political analyst, Roumyana Buchvarova, as well as by GERB deputy leader Tsvetan Tsvetanov – in the years of Borissov’s public ascendancy, his closest lieutenant – and by Tsetska Tsacheva, Speaker of the National Assembly.

All of this, so far, leaves aside the question of what would happen should Borissov depart the premiership to seek, and – going by the polls – likely win the post of head of state. By law, as President he could not longer be the leader of a political party, but a latter-day De Gaulle option need not be ruled out (in his days as Sofia mayor, Borissov also was barred by the office from being leader of a political party; those were the years that Tsvetanov was nominal leader and Borissov was termed the “informal leader”).

Nor would Borissov’s move across the road, from one office in Sofia’s Dondoukov Boulevard to another opposite it, precipitate early elections. With his departure, GERB, as the largest party in Parliament, would be offered a mandate to form a government, and presumably would well be able to do so, at the head of a coalition similarly to that now in office, only with a different figure in the Prime Minister’s chair.

Meanwhile, the BSP has been on a quest to agree with its splinter ABC on a joint presidential ticket.

Georgi Purvanov led his allies out of the BSP after his failed bid to regain the BSP leadership after the end of his two successive five-year terms of office as Bulgaria’s President. ABC was part of Borissov’s second government, from November 2014 to May 2016, when it found a pretext to quit in the months ahead of the presidential elections.

Purvanov, bizarrely, has been insisting that the clearly-worded provision in the Bulgarian constitution barring a President from serving more than two terms actually means no more than two consecutive terms, and by his unique reading, he would be eligible for a third term (a reading something in the spirit of Putin, with whose country Purvanov is a keen advocate of cordial ties).

This idea does not seem to have gained traction within the BSP, at least some of whose top echelon must have keen memories of the fractiousness that Purvanov brought to the party in his campaign to get back the leadership.

Still, on July 30, BSP leader Ninova continued to insist that she was certain that her party and Purvanov’s ABC would come up with a joint ticket. For good measure, hopes on the left-wing are to add Tatyana Doncheva’s Movement 21, an extra-parliamentary splinter led by the former BSP MP, to this alliance.

At this writing, talks with the ABC were scheduled for August 12 and with Movement 21 for August 9, ahead of the BSP National Council meeting on August 14, on which latter date, according to Ninova, a candidate would be named.

Ahead of that development, should there be one, the centre-right Reformist Bloc is due to meet on August 2 to “discuss the mechanism” for nominating the presidential and vice-presidential candidates from the coalition.

The Reformist Bloc, long characterised by internal fractiousness, has since late 2015 been even more of an oddity, with most of its constituent parties supporting and participating in the government, and one – Kanev’s DSB – in opposition.

For all of its very public brawling, though, the Reformist Bloc has some prospects. The more reliable polls show that in 2016 it either has maintained its collective support or even has gained. Going by those same polls, by default – thanks to the damage that Parliament’s currently third-largest party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, has wrought itself – the Reformist Bloc should emerge as the third-largest group in Parliament, were parliamentary elections held now.

On paper again, the Reformist Bloc, or at least some its parties, are the inheritors to the mantle of the traditions of right-wing politics in Bulgaria, even though that mantle has been assumed overwhelmingly by GERB. The Reformist Bloc has its electorate and could even hope to battle to a second round – should it have an inspiring candidate and a brilliant campaign.

Alas for the Reformist Bloc, few of the reportedly shortlisted names have much in the way of household recognition, with the reported shortlist of seven including, among others, the name of a former GERB cabinet minister (Traicho Traikov), a former Speaker of Parliament from the time of the 2001/05 Saxe-Coburg government (Ogynan Gerdjikov) and a leader of the one of the smaller constituent parties of the Bloc (Korman Ismailov). Perhaps they’ll come up with a brilliant campaign.

The MRF has yet to make it clear whether it will name a presidential candidate, or tacitly back someone else’s, as it did in 2006, when informally it was behind Purvanov. Nor is it clear what its splinter, Lyutvi Mestan’s DOST party, will do.

However, unity is not always an elusive grail in Bulgarian politics. Former bitter enemies (and before that, erstwhile close allies) of the Patriotic Front and Ataka have achieved it, or at least, if not unity, then the convenient fiction of a joint ticket supported by an “initiative committee”.

This joint ticket has the Patriotic Front’s Krassimir Karakachanov as its presidential candidate and Ataka’s Yavor Notev as the vice-presidential candidate.

Karakachanov, leader of the nationalist VMRO party, is co-leader of the Patriotic Front along with Valeri Simeonov, leader of the National Movement for the Salvation of Bulgaria (parties with names like that require no adjective). Several years ago, Simeonov was a close ally of Ataka leader Volen Siderov, providing him with the cable-channel platform on which Siderov built his Ataka party.

More recently, the two fell out, and the 2014 elections produced a National Assembly in which Simeonov and the PF supported the government, while Siderov’s Ataka ended up as one of the two-smallest parties and avowedly in opposition.

While the two forces fish in the same pond, their differences go beyond mere personality issues. Siderov and his little party are adamantly pro-Russian; Simeonov, most certainly, is not.

Notev’s presence, ironically, also is a reminder of Siderov’s woes of the past year and more. An advocate, apart from being – like Karakachanov – a Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Notev has been in the public eye in his capacity as Siderov’s lawyer, dealing with court appearances by the Ataka leader in connection with his guilty pleas on sundry assault and hooliganism charges.

Nonetheless, this is the ticket that first has achieved a semblance of unity, and will mobilise a certain electorate from among the disillusioned – and anti-migrant, xenophobic and so on – public, but the question will be whether the whole could be greater than the sum of its parts.

The campaign no doubt also will see reminders about Karakachanov’s past as State Security Agent Ivan, when he worked for Bulgaria’s communist-era secret service. He has reiterated recently that he sees no shame in the matter, and perhaps for the hard-core of the nationalist, far-right electorate, for them there will be none either. Karakachanov has insisted that he accepted no shilling for his work for State Security, doing it with “the conviction that it was my patriotic duty”. Many Bulgarians might well see things differently, but they would be placing their votes elsewhere.

And for now, those Bulgarians are still waiting to see for whom, as the guessing game drags on, soporifically through the searing days of August, and slowly gaining momentum as the haze of this Bulgarian summer of 2016 clears, little by little, when autumn comes.



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.