The two candidates in Bulgaria’s presidential elections seen in opinion polls as running first and second – out of 21 in the race – duelled in a live television debate on October 20.
GERB candidate Tsetska Tsacheva and Bulgarian Socialist Party nominee Roumen Radev made their appearance on local TV screens just a few hours after, at local time, the third and final US presidential election debate between Trump and Clinton wrapped up.
The Tsacheva-Radev encounter was vastly more genteel than the American show, which says a great deal considering the fractiousness and mutual interruptions that usually characterise political disputes on Bulgarian television.
Further, the two Bulgarians are not competing to be the leader of the Free World, but for a post that is largely ceremonial, albeit with some limited powers of veto over legislation, the role of appointing ambassadors and a quota share in other state bodies, and the constitutionally-conferred rank of commander-in-chief.
Much of the 50-minute broadcast was less of a debate than a series of questions being asked of both candidates. This made it less of a test of detailed exposition of policy than a question of how fast each could speak.
Tsacheva and Radev were questioned on national security, foreign policy and the powers of the president, as well as on issues in the national referendum that will be held simultaneously with the presidential election first round on November 6 (if there is no clear winner on November 6, as polls suggest there will not, a second round will be held on November 13 between the two candidates with the most votes at the first round).
The national security questions turned largely into a debate about Bulgaria’s adequacy in coping, or not, with illegal migration.
Radev took the opportunity to slam centre-right Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s government over the ever-mounting costs of the controversial fence at the border with Turkey. His criticism came a day after the Cabinet voted a further 20 million leva for the project, putting the overall price tag at an estimated 170 million leva.
He contrasted this with the beginnings of the project, the 30km fence at the Turkish border commissioned by the 2013/14 ruling axis, saying the current extensions were working out at a million leva a km.
Throughout the debate, in fact, Radev frequently seemed as if he was standing against Borissov rather than Tsacheva.
In what is likely to be regarded by some as a gaffe and which certainly will at least raise eyebrows, in a part of the debate on the return of migrants and refugees beyond the borders of Bulgaria, Tsacheva said that the national interest is supreme over individual human rights.
Tsacheva, not only a senior member of GERB but also on leave from her post as Speaker of the National Assembly, touted what she described as the government’s successes in securing European solidarity to cope with the migration issue, adding how other EU countries had praised Bulgaria for securing an outer border of the EU.
This, in turn, opened the way for Radev to say that performance was anything but as good as the government claimed. He highlighted the situation at the Serbian border, which he portrayed as porous, and cited figures that he said showed a week-on-week increase in illegal migration.
Asked what he would do about the situation, Radev said that were he president, he would summon the Consultative Council on National Security – as is the head of state’s prerogative. Tsacheva’s rebuttal was that Bulgaria had functioning institutions and the council should be convened only in the face of a sharp real threat to national security. The institutions were in place and functioning, she said, adding that Radev should not raise alarm among the public.
In the foreign policy section, Tsacheva underlined that she was ready to be president and commander-in-chief, and pointed to the presence of Vice-Admiral Plamen Manushev as the vice-presidential candidate on the GERB ticket to augment her commander’s credentials.
When Radev, until recently commander of Bulgaria’s Air Force, corrected Tsacheva on referring to the “Bulgarian army” when the armed forces have more than arms than that, she replied that when she was president, she would consult his expertise on military matters.
On Russia, Radev – against a background of the BSP in Parliament pushing against sanctions on Moscow and have a long tradition of being pro-Kremlin – sought to affirm his credentials as being in favour of Bulgaria’s continued membership of Nato and the EU, while adding that “Europhilia does not mean Russophobia”.
Both seemed to agree that the issue of sanctions against Russia should be revisited. The most-affected EU countries, such as Bulgaria, should seek compensation, she said.
On Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Tsacheva was prepared to reiterate what incumbent President Rossen Plevneliev had said, that Crimea is part of Ukraine. Radev said that de jure, Crimea was part of Ukraine, but de facto, was under the Russian flag.
The powers of the president section was a damp squib, as neither candidate was interested in seeing the constitutional powers of the head of state expanded, nor Bulgaria transformed into a presidential republic.
Inevitably, questions to the candidates about whether they had anything in their past they were ashamed of led to an exchange about Tsacheva’s membership of the Bulgarian Communist Party in her youth.
Her BCP membership was something of which she was neither ashamed nor proud, Tsacheva said, going on to essay an old joke that if one is not socialist at 20, one had no heart, but to remain at 40 meant that one had no brain.
Radev pounced on this, asking how she could be the unifier of the nation (a concept embodied in the constitution) when she could speak of a section of Bulgarian citizens in that way. A president Tsacheva would treat socialists as brainless, he said.
When Tsacheva responded with how she, as Speaker, worked with all parties in Parliament, Radev hit back with the strikingly low approval ratings that Parliament has in polls.
Whether the debate influences any Bulgarian voter remains to be seen. Ahead of it, the few polls that have been announced put Tsacheva’s lead over Radev as somewhere between six and nine points, but envisaging a very close contest at a second round.
With a few days more than two weeks to go the November 6 vote, no clear issue has emerged in the country’s presidential election campaign – barring, most likely, it ending up serving as a referendum on the performance of Borissov’s party in government.