Political scientist: Absurd to still not know who will be candidates in the presidential election

In 1970, a film was released entitled Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came. The runup, if it can even be called that, to Bulgaria’s November 2016 presidential elections somehow calls that film title to mind.

With about a month and a week to the start of the official campaigning period ahead of the Bulgarian presidential elections on November 6 (a second-round runoff will be held on November 13 if no candidate scores a decisive victory the first time around), most major parties have not announced their candidates.

Political scientist Daniel Smilov, in an interview on August 31 with public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio, said that the presidency in Bulgaria has a key role, because in spite of the limited power conferred by the constitution on the head of state, the president gives guidelines for the development of the country.

“The choice of President will show the mood of the people,” Smilov told BNR. “For that reason, it is worrying that we are in the absurd situation just days before the election of having no idea who the main candidates of the parties are.”

People should have enough time to make an informed decision. “To me it really sounds ridiculous for dates like October 2 to be set to announce candidates,” Smilov said.

This was a reference to Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s centre-right GERB party, the majority partner in the coalition government and the largest party in Parliament, having again delayed announcing its candidate – this time, to October 2.

Smilov added that the decision by the Reformist Bloc – the centre-right coalition that is a junior partner in the Borissov government, apart from a minority party in the bloc that opposes Borissov’s government – on a presidential candidate had taken longer than expected.

GERB’s executive committee, at an August 30 meeting, confirmed what party deputy leader and campaign headquarters chief Tsvetan Tsvetanov had said on television earlier that day, that GERB would wait until October 2 to announce its candidates for president and vice-president.

Notably, this means that, going by the deadlines set by the Central Election Commission, GERB will register to participate in the elections before announcing its candidate. The deadline for registration as a participating party or coalition is 45 days before election day. The deadline for naming a candidate is 32 days, meaning that GERB will do so just three days before the latter deadline.

GERB’s game in not announcing a candidate has led to endless speculation in the media and political circles about who its candidates will be – and past suggestions by Radan Kanev, leader of the opposition Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, that the reason GERB is not announcing a candidate is that it does not have one.

Much speculation, fuelled by the man himself, is that the candidate might be Borissov. He has hinted at this on numerous occasions, though there also have been denials from within GERB that the Prime Minister would seek a job change that would move him to the President’s office, across the road from the Cabinet office on Sofia’s Dondoukov Boulevard.

Other names that have appeared in the media as possible GERB presidential candidates are those of Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Donchev (denied, including recently by Donchev), European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva (denied, by Georgieva), Bourgas mayor Dimitar Nikolov (not quite denied), Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandukova (denied so vehemently by Fandukova that one Bulgarian headline-writer described her as ‘fighting in the race to not be president’) and, most recently, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Roumyana Buchvarova (a fairly recent report, so presumably the denial is pending).

GERB senior figures, including Tsvetanov, have been putting it about that their candidate will be well-known not only to the Bulgarian public but also in European capitals. Of the names that have been the subject of speculation, few meet that latter criterion, but the measure of fame, including self-imagined, is a subjective thing.

The Bulgarian Socialist Party’s saga over its presidential candidate has been a glorious mess. In fact, its candidate comes from the officers’ mess.

Or does he? In one of the most farcical figleaf operations in recent Bulgarian political history, against tough competition, the BSP’s nominee Roumen Radev will be formally nominated not by the party itself but by an “initiative committee”. This committee will be headed by Stefan Danailov, a BSP veteran who otherwise has the respectability of being a vastly talented actor (stage and screen variety).

Now, the idea of an initiative committee may have made sense earlier in the narrative, when it seemed that the left-wing parties of Bulgaria would come up with a joint candidate. Briefly, for the BSP and Georgi Purvanov’s splinter party ABC, Radev, a former Air Force commander with no political experience, was that joint candidate.

Not only did that fall apart in acrimony, but the third leg planned for this tripod ran away by itself, when Tatyana Doncheva’s Movement 21 refused to join in a joint socialist ticket.

To add to the farcical elements of the socialist saga, Purvanov – who twice has been Bulgaria’s head of state, in two terms between 2002 and 2012 – insists that the Bulgarian constitution does not bar him from a third term, and has repeatedly hinted that he could stand for a third.

Purvanov, a former State Security agent code-named Gotse, does not see the following as barring him from standing for a third term as head of state. From the official English translation of Article 95 (1) of the Bulgarian constitution: “The President and the Vice President shall be eligible for only one re-election to the same office”. The Purvanov interpretation seems rather Putinesque, but then, he is rather keen on warmly cordial relations from Moscow, and might be expected to take his cues from there.

No farce without irony, either. The Radev candidacy was widely seen as Purvanov’s initiative, and the fact that Radev is the BSP candidate – pushing aside the “initiative committee” figleaf – makes it almost appear that Purvanov would have two horses in the race, including himself, should the latter move survive a Constitutional Court challenge.

Meanwhile, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, currently the third-largest party in Bulgaria’s National Assembly, has given no clear signal about its candidate, or even whether it will have one. The MRF has sat out presidential elections in the past, such as in 2006, when it tacitly supported Purvanov for a second term.

DOST, former MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan’s splinter party formed after Ahmed Dogan ousted him from all MRF party posts, appears poised to nominate Mestan. In this scenario, and should Purvanov try to stand, the number of former State Security agents in Bulgaria’s presidential elections would rise further, with Agent Gotse (Purvanov), Agent Pavel (Mestan), in addition to the nationalist Patriotic Front-Ataka joint ticket, headed by Krassimir Karakachanov, or as State Security knew him, Agent Ivan.

As to the Reformist Bloc, as political scientist Smilov pointed out, the process of coming up with a candidate has taken longer than expected – though observers of the bloc’s neverending track record of infighting might not be surprised at the difficulty and tardiness of the process.

The bloc has had internal votes, internal polling of opinions about the potential candidates – conducted by an outside agency, and various internal negotiations. Headlines along the lines of “Reformist Bloc fails to agree on presidential candidate” have been fairly routine throughout August. The coalition said that it would make a final decision by August 30. It did not. Watch this space. Like the spaces around several Bulgarian political parties, it remains empty.

(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.