Bulgaria’s 2016 presidential elections: The candidates in profile

After the Central Election Commission refused to approve the registration applications of three, a total of 21 candidates are in the race to Bulgaria’s next President in the elections to be held in November 2016.

Five of the candidates have been nominated, either directly or through an initiative committee, by parties and coalitions represented in the National Assembly.

Of the eight parliamentary groups in the National Assembly, two have together nominated a joint ticket – the Patriotic Front parties plus Ataka – while one parliamentary group, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, has not formally nominated a candidate.

The field of 21 candidates is the highest since 1992, the year of Bulgaria’s first democratic election for President, when the number was the same – though in that election, 17 of the 21 got less than one per cent of the vote.

In 2016, it is largely the candidates backed by parties in the National Assembly that have chances of getting any significant share of the vote – and thus logically, it is one of them that will win. Which is not to say that some of the others are not worth noting.

Ordered by the sizes of the parliamentary group backing them, the presidential candidates are:

Tsetska Tsacheva – nominated by GERB. On unpaid leave from her post as Speaker of the National Assembly, an office that she has held twice, Tsacheva (58) has been fairly described in Bulgarian media reports as the least popular among the short-list of candidates that Prime Minister and GERB leader Boiko Borissov chose from.

A graduate in law from Sofia University, Tsacheva was employed as a lawyer at the Pleven District People’s Court and was a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party, a fact that her detractors have not failed to seize on. GERB’s defence that in the communist era, “most Bulgarians” were Party members has caused indignation among ordinary Bulgarians and among historians for the inaccuracy of the claim. Tsacheva left the BCP immediately after the end of the Zhivkov era and the beginning of the transition to democracy in the 1990s, working as a lawyer and as the chief legal counsel for Pleven municipality until 2007, when she was elected a Pleven city councillor on a GERB ticket. In the same elections, she bid for mayor, but was defeated by Naiden Zelenogorski who won a third term on the ticket of the Union of Democratic Forces (Zelenogorski and the UDF are part of today’s Reformist Bloc, a minority partner in Borissov’s coalition government).

Tsetska Tsacheva and GERB vice-presidential candidate Plamen Manushev.
Tsetska Tsacheva and GERB vice-presidential candidate Plamen Manushev.

Tsacheva became Speaker in 2009 after GERB got the largest share of votes in that year’s scheduled parliamentary elections. The 2013 early elections saw GERB blocked from returning to power. Borissov’s party declined to take up a deputy speaker’s post to which, as a parliamentary group, it was entitled, so Tsacheva – who had been expected to be handed the job – sat out the turbulent months of 2013/14 as an ordinary MP. When the early elections of 2014 returned Borissov to power at the head of a new coalition government, Tsacheva returned to the Speaker’s chair.

Married, with a son, Tsacheva also speaks Russian and German.

Roumen Radev – nominated by an initiative committee but effectively the candidate of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party. Until recently the commander of the Bulgarian Air Force, Radev (53) is a newcomer to politics after a career spent entirely in the military. His nomination was a turbulent affair because he was seen as the nominee of Georgi Purvanov, the leader of ABC, a party that is a splinter from the BSP. Kornelia Ninova, BSP leader, has insisted that Radev was put in place not by Purvanov but by BSP grassroots structures, a claim striking for the fact that even when Radev was commander of the country’s air force, he had hardly much of a public profile.

Radev, a graduate of Bulgaria’s air force academy and the Maxwell Squadron Officer School in the US (Master of Strategic Studies, with honours), was top of his class at Bulgaria’s Rakovski Defence and Staff College.

Roumen Radev
Roumen Radev

Before his entry into politics, Radev made headlines in October 2015 by resigning as Air Force commander, apparently in frustration that a lack of resources (money, personnel, serviceable aircraft, jet fuel) made it impossible for him to do his job. The resignation lasted less than a day when Borissov summoned Radev to the Cabinet office and talked him out of quitting.

Radev, who as his resignation took effect publicly lashed out at his Defence Minister Nikolai Nenchev for what Radev called incompetence and refusal to listen to his professional advice, was lambasted by Borissov for, according to the Prime Minister, having previously lied about having political ambitions.

Radev is married with children. He speaks Russian and English.

Traicho Traikov – nominated by the Reformist Bloc, a coalition of five centre-right political parties.

Traikov (46) was Economy, Energy and Tourism Minister in Borissov’s government from 2009 to 2012, with his term ending ostensibly over a Bulgarian government business forum in Qatar in March 2012 having descended into farce because of poor organisation.

The Qatar episode was widely seen as a pretext for getting rid of Traikov, against a background of tensions between him and Borissov over energy issues, in particular Traikov’s adamant stance against Bulgarian energy dependence on Russia.

After his ousting from the Cabinet, Traikov made repeated media appearances, criticising Borissov’s government. Traikov joined the Reformist Bloc in 2013 and was elected a Sofia city councillor at the head of the bloc’s ticket in regular municipal elections in 2015.

Traicho Traikov
Traicho Traikov

A graduate of Sofia’s First English Language School, Traikov graduated in international economic relations at the University of National and World Economy in 1994. He worked in the financial analysis and management sector in Austria and Germany and from 2005 to 2009, for Austrian energy utility EVN Bulgaria. Traikov is the father of two children, the youngest, a daughter, born in September 2016.

Krassimir Karakachanov – nominated by an election coalition called the United Patriots, made up of the National Movement for the Salvation of Bulgaria, Ataka and VMRO. In the National Assembly, the NMSB and VMRO are represented through the Patriotic Front coalition, the fifth-largest parliamentary group with 17 MPs. Volen Siderov’s Ataka has 11 MPs, making it – along with ABC – one of the two smallest groups in the National Assembly.

Karakachanov (51), a Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, is one of three candidates in Bulgaria’s presidential elections previously confirmed by the Dossier Commission to have worked for communist-era secret service State Security. From 1989, aged 24, he was Agent Ivan, of the Sixth Department of State Security, which was responsible for ideological warfare. Karakachanov was in the third division of this department, which was in charge of “combating subversive activities by the enemy through organised religion and Zionism”.

His parliamentary biography states his profession as being a historian. It is the third time he is an MP, having also been elected to the 38th and 40th parliaments. Karakachanov was a presidential candidate in 2011, eliminated at the first round having won just 0.99 per cent of the vote.

Krassimir Karakachanov. Screenshot via BNT.
Krassimir Karakachanov. Screenshot via BNT.

Born in Rousse, Karakachanov attended university in Veliko Turnovo and in Sofia. He speaks Russian, German and Serbian.

Ivailo Kalfin – the nominee of an initiative committee called “Kalfin – President”, effectively the candidate of ABC.

Kalfin (52) is among the most experienced politicians in this year’s presidential elections – including, like Karakachanov, having been a candidate in 2011. Unlike Karakachanov, however, Kalfin, at the time the candidate of the BSP, made it to the second round; he got close to 29 per cent at the first round – second place – and at the second round, got 47.42 per cent of the vote, losing to GERB candidate Rossen Plevneliev.

A graduate of the University of National World Economy (in 1983, when it was still called Karl Marx Higher Institute of Economics) in Sofia and the UK’s Loughborough University, Kalfin was the founder of the Social Democrats National Movement.

Kalfin was a member of Parliament from 1994 to 1997, again from 2000 to 2001, and a sign of his long close association with ABC leader Purvanov is that he was his economic adviser from 2002 to 2005, the first three years that Purvanov was Bulgaria’s head of state. Kalfin was elected to Parliament again in 2005 before being appointed as deputy prime minister and foreign minister in the tripartite coalition government in which BSP leader Sergei Stanishev was prime minister.

In 2009, Kalfin was elected a member of the European Parliament at the head of the BSP ticket; the party got four EP seats out of Bulgaria’s allocated share of 17, against GERB’s five.

Ivailo Kalfin
Ivailo Kalfin

When Purvanov, who had founded ABC as a “civic movement” while still president of Bulgaria, failed in his bid to get back the BSP leadership after the end of his term as head of state in January 2012, Kalfin remained loyal to him. In the coalition government formed by Borissov in November 2014, Kalfin became deputy prime minister and minister of labour and social policy. He showed closer loyalty to the government in which he was serving than to his party on the foreign debt issue, threatening to quit his government post unless his party approved the debt, an issue which was highly divisive in ABC.

Kalfin quit his Cabinet post in May 2016 when Purvanov pulled ABC out of the government deal; Borissov expressed apparently genuine regret about Kalfin’s departure. Kalfin does not appear to have been Purvanov’s first choice for the party’s presidential candidate in 2016 – Purvanov floated the idea of himself as the candidate (constitutionally, impossible) and is seen as having pushed Radev forward. It was only after the collapse of the deal with the BSP about Radev that Kalfin was named the candidate. Ironically, some polls suggest that Kalfin could turn in a stronger vote than Radev, in part because of Kalfin’s long-standing brand-name recognition.

Then there are the rest, the other 16 candidates.

These include quite a mixed bag, including a somewhat unpopular former prime minister, a further two former State Security agents (one also a previous presidential candidate), a former BSP Sofia mayoral candidate, a football boss (also a previous presidential candidate), a pharmaceutical chain owner, and those are just the names that have some recognisability to them. Let’s stick to just a few notable names.

Plamen Oresharski – standing as an independent. Undoubtedly best known for his time as occupant of the prime minister’s chair in what was nominally a BSP-led coalition government in 2013 and 2014, it was Oresharski’s task to announce to the National Assembly, that fateful June day in 2013, that Delyan Peevski was being nominated to head the State Agency for National Security.

The ensuing widely-supported public protests, sparked by indignation at the appointment of the controversial figure (withdrawn after a few days, but the political damage was done) turned Oresharski into something both of a figure of contempt and a figure of fun. Anti-government protesters dined out on Oresharski being forced to enter and leave public events by rear doors.

Apart from the anti-government protests, business and investor confidence declined amid the political instability. The sound thrashing handed to the BSP in the May 2014 European Parliament elections spelt the end for Oresharski’s tenure of the chair at the head of the Cabinet table.

oresharski via president bg

Before those heady days of 2013/14, Oresharski had had a career notable for its political shifts. His first public office was as deputy finance minister in the right-wing government headed by Union of Democratic Forces leader Ivan Kostov. When Kostov’s UDF lost the 2001 election, Oresharski took a post as a lecturer in economics. In 2003, Oresharski was nominated to be the UDF candidate for mayor of Sofia, but the nomination was withdrawn after allegations (denied) against him of having questionable connections. Oresharski, who had been a deputy chairman of the UDF, left the party, re-emerging in 2004 as a member of a working group on economic issues for then-president and former BSP leader Georgi Purvanov.

In 2005, Oresharski became finance minister in the Stanishev government. Four years later, when GERB leader Boiko Borissov defeated the BSP in regular elections to become Prime Minister, Oresharski sat as an ordinary MP.

The conspiracy theory in the 2016 presidential elections is that Oresharski is the unofficial candidate of the opposition Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the third-largest party in the current National Assembly and which was the driving force during the time of the “Oresharski” cabinet.

George Ganchev and Velizar Enchev are the other two known former State Security agents, apart from Karakachanov, in Bulgaria’s 2016 presidential race. (This is known because they have been checked and announced previously by the Dossier Commission, the only body empowered by statute to do so. If there are any others, it has yet to emerge, but bear in mind that anyone in public office in recent years would have been checked and it would have been announced if they were State Security. This means that candidates including Tsacheva, Traikov, Kalfin and Oresharki can be ruled out because the Commission would have disclosed their State Security past if they had one. Having worked for State Security is no bar to election as Bulgaria’s president: Georgi Purvanov, head of state from 2001 to 2012, was Agent Gotse).

Ganchev, a presidential candidate in 2016 on the ticket of the Christian Democratic Union, was Agent George (his codename being conveniently the same as his first name) from 1970, of State Security’s Second Chief Directorate, which was in charge of counter-intelligence.

Ganchev (77) left Bulgaria in the 1960s after marrying an Englishwoman. His career abroad included having been World Professional Fencing Champion, competing for Great Britain, in 1970 and 1974 and working in the film industry in the UK and US. It is the third time Ganchev has been a presidential candidate, after unsuccessful bids in 1992 (16.8 per cent), 1996 (21.9 per cent) and 2001 (3.4 per cent). He was twice an MP, in 1995 and 1997. In some of these earlier elections, there were controversies about his eligibility, given that he had held a US passport.

Enchev (63), a Sofia University journalism graduate, became a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1984, and was employed by party mouthpiece Otechestven Front. He was Bulgarian National Television’s correspondent in Yugoslavia from 1987 to 1993. He was also, from 1985, an agent for State Security’s First Chief Directorate (in charge of international intelligence work), with the code name Kesyakov.

Enchev was Bulgaria’s ambassador to Croatia from 1997 to 2002. Enchev’s career in populist and nationalist media and politics has included a Sofia city council bid in 2007 on the ticket of the “Social Protest” coalition, and on Valeri Simeonov’s nationalist TV channel, Skat. A candidate in National Assembly and European Parliament elections for Simeonov’s National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, Enchev was elected to Parliament on the Patriotic Front coalition ticket in 2014 but immediately broke with the party over its co-operation with the Borissov government; he went on to found the Movement for Radical Change Bulgarian Spring, on whose ticket he is standing. Enchev sees his party as the “Bulgaria Syriza”, a reference to the Greek populist party. No Bulgarian opinion poll has indicated Movement for Radical Change Bulgarian Spring as having sufficient electoral support to be mentioned.

Alexander Tomov, on the ticket of the Bulgarian Social Democrats – Euroleft, has long been very well-known in Bulgarian football circles, for his long-term involvement in senior capacities with CSKA Sofia. Tomov (62) has a doctorate in economics, has authored six books and lectured in political science at Sofia University. A member of the 36th and 38th National Assemblies, Tomov was deputy prime minister in the Dimitar Popov government in 1990/91.

In 2011, Sofia City Court found Tomov guilty of siphoning 15 million leva while he was head of the managing board of Kremikovtzi. However, the appellate division returned the case for retrial because of procedural errors, and in 2015, Sofia City Court acquitted Tomov.

Tomov was a presidential candidate in 1996, standing as an independent. He got 3.16 per cent of the vote, running fourth among 13 candidates.

Tatyana Doncheva, on the ticket of her Movement 21 party and the National Movement for the Salvation of Bulgaria, is another of the veteran politicians in this year’s presidential elections. Doncheva (56) was three times an MP for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, and in 2005 was the BSP candidate for mayor of Sofia, losing at the second round to Boiko Borissov. A skilled lawyer, the other string to Doncheva’s bow is her accomplished mastery of the violin.

tatyana doncheva violin plovdiv

Long seen as a “dissenting voice” in the BSP, Doncheva left the party after failing to make an impact in the party’s leadership elections in 2009, and founded Movement 21 as a party. Like Kalfin, she is seen as likely to take votes away among the left-wing electorate, thus damaging the chances of the BSP candidate Radev.

Nikolai Banev, standing as an independent, is reportedly a billionaire. Now 57, Banev was, according to his Wikipedia entry, an activist in the communist youth league Komsomol, going on to thrive in business after the start of Bulgaria’s 1990s start of the transition to democracy. He created one of Bulgaria’s first private security companies. Banev currently has numerous interests, including in the hospitality industry at the Black Sea coast, and is also known as a football club owner. He is a member of the board of the member of the Bulgarian-Russian Chamber of Commerce.

Vesselin Mareshki (49), the nominee of an initiative committee. Since the 1990s, he has built a prominent place in Bulgaria’s pharmaceutical retail industry and has ownership stakes in pharmaceutical and cosmetics production companies. Said to be worth a reported 500 million leva, Mareshki also has been involved in Bulgarian football management and has entered the fuel station market, using cut-prices as his competitive edge.

Vesselin Mareshki
Vesselin Mareshki

Mareshki’s political career has included a 2011 attempt to be elected mayor of his native Varna; he made it to the second round, getting 40.5 per cent and defeat at the hands of Kiril Yordanov, who then was the GERB candidate. Mareshki’s initiative committee proposed various questions for the November 6 national referendum; questions about liberalising the pharmaceutical and fuel industries were rejected by Parliament.

Those who are no stranger to being on television include Dimitar “Mityo Pishtova” Marinov, who appeared on Bulgarian reality television in VIP Brother, and who tried and failed to stand in the 2006 presidential electins, being rejected because he lacked sufficient signatures, and Bisser “The Stain” Milanov, who has been the subject of reports about arrests for alleged hooliganism, and has served jail time for car theft and for escaping from jail after the car theft conviction. Milanov’s other occasions as a guest of the state include for resisting authorities (2004), and assault with grievous bodily harm (2007), and in 2010, a probational sentence for drink-driving. He was active in the counter-protests, supporting the “Oresharski” government, against the anti-government protests of 2013/14.

  • For the full list of candidates and who is nominating them, please see The Sofia Globe’s October 5 story on the topic – posted before the CEC disqualified two of the candidates, Vladimir Kuzov and Svetslov Vitkov, for having too few valid signatures to stand in the election.



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.