Bulgaria’s presidential election first round: Winners and losers

Some won by not losing. Some gained in spite of losing. And some clearly lost. That’s the sum of the first round of Bulgaria’s presidential elections, held on November 6.

Figures from the Central Election Commission, with close to all ballots counted, showed Bulgarian Socialist Party-backed candidate Roumen Radev with about 27.6 per cent and GERB candidate Tsetska Tsacheva at about 24.66 per cent, a gap slightly wider than some exit polls on election night had suggested.

Out of the original field of 21 registered candidates, these two go to the runoff on November 13.

Among those who have won out of this is BSP leader Kornelia Ninova, elected to that post in May 2016. Whatever happens at the second round, the fact that Radev came out with the most votes at the first round probably will secure Ninova’s tenure of the party leadership. She has outdone the ill-fated months of her predecessor Mihail Mikov, and the BSP now has less of the whiff of failure that grew with the long years that Sergei Stanishev was its leader.

It is also a gain for her considering the initial debacle around the nomination of Radev, who was perceived as having been pushed forward by Georgi Purvanov’s socialist breakaway ABC party. A BSP-ABC joint ticket deal on Radev fell apart quickly.

For a few moments, back then, it seemed that the division in the left-wing would be repaired. This did not happen. It is notable that at the Radev-BSP election night news conference, Ninova asserted that one day there would be left-wing unity, but not immediately.

While failure for Radev would have opened Ninova to attack from within the BSP, where there is never a shortage of would-be party leaders, perhaps even more notable is the political achievement of the far-right and ultra-nationalist parties and their “United Patriots” ticket.

That ticket, with VMRO leader Krassimir Karakachanov as the presidential candidate and Ataka’s Yavor Notev as the vice-presidential running mate, came in third with close to 14 per cent of the vote.

At their election night news conference, the leaders of the “United Patriots” were bullish about their prospects, pledging to continue to work together along the lines of the model they had used in these presidential elections. At the table, leaders of these parties, who have chequered histories in their political relationships – Valeri Simeonov and Volen Siderov, initially close allies, became estranged in more recent years, but now had put aside their differences – presented a united front.

Their talk on election night raised a number of questions, one of the most important being the future relationship with Boiko Borissov’s governing coalition, should it survive the November 13 second-round presidential election vote.

Simeonov’s National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria and Karakachanov’s VMRO, as the Patriotic Front, are part of the government coalition deal. Siderov’s Ataka is in opposition. Yet they clearly hinted that they intended unity in Parliament. Perhaps they expect Borissov’s GERB to lose, and the question of the relationship with the government to become moot.

On the other hand, given the history of the centre-right, five-party Reformist Bloc coalition, there is precedent in recent Bulgarian political history to have a bloc part of which is in government and part of which is in opposition.

Either way, the United Patriots’ campaign, predicated mainly on hard-line rhetoric against refugees and migrants, and nationalist blabber about ridding Bulgaria of supposed foreign suzerainty, clearly paid off. A whole greater than the sum of their parts, the “Patriots” have a message that resonates with a xenophobic section of the electorate – and their hammering of the illegal migration issue has pushed it on to the agenda of Radev, too.

Then there is Vesselin Mareshki, the business person noted for his cut-price pharmacy and fuel businesses, who came in fourth with about 8.78 per cent, outdoing a number of established political forces. The result has led him to make clear hints about a future political project, while – unsurprisingly – continuing to paint himself as an anti-establishment outsider.

Mareshki, at his election night news conference, said that he was endorsing neither Tsacheva nor Radev at the second round, but – finessing the point – said that he personally would vote for Tsacheva’s running mate, Vice Admiral Plamen Manushev, whom he preferred over Radev’s vice-presidential running mate Iliyana Yotova.

Will Mareshki really go ahead with a political project? Well, Bulgaria is not without precedent for political parties formed around an individual.

Then there is the Reformist Bloc. Its candidate, Traicho Traikov, came in fifth, with figures at the moment showing 7.2 per cent support (not much ahead of the “I don’t support anyone” box on the ballot paper, at 6.86 per cent).

The bloc has been significantly fractured for a year, since the resignation of Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov in protest at the form of judicial reform legislation approved by the governing majority. The Reformist Bloc has remained in an ambivalent position, partly in government, partly in opposition.

The final break between Radan Kanev’s Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria and the rest of the bloc seems imminent. In opposition, Kanev has made calls for Borissov to resign, and on election night, revived his talk of a new right-wing project. On November 7, he said that should the Reformist Bloc endorse Tsacheva for the second round, he would pull the DSB out of the bloc. That may be making de jure what has been de facto for some time, but it worsens the position of Bulgaria’s centre-right section of the spectrum.

The bloc also may face the awkward question of what to do in the light of the statement before the election by Meglena Kouneva, leader of a constituent party and a deputy prime minister in Borissov’s government, that should the bloc turn in a result less than its support in the 2014 parliamentary elections, its current ministers in the Cabinet should withdraw.

In October 2014, the Reformist Bloc got 8.9 per of the vote. This time around, going by close-to-final figures on November 7, it got 7.02 per cent. Again, whatever the bloc chooses to do, if anything, about Kouneva’s previous statement may become moot if Borissov resigns on November 14. But on the arithmetic alone, the Reformist Bloc has to be inscribed in the losers column.

Finally, Boiko Borissov has hardly emerged a winner at this first round, to put it mildly, however much he tries to argue that his party did the best because it was the only party out of the majors to field a candidate in its own name, rather than that of an initiative committee.

But consider these comparisons. In 2011, at the first round, GERB’s then-candidate Rossen Plevneliev got just more than 40 per cent of the vote. BSP rival Ivailo Kalfin ran second with 28.96 per cent. Tsacheva’s November 6 2016 score of 24.66 per cent looks even worse compared with what happened five years ago.

Moreover, in the October 5 2014 early parliamentary elections, GERB got 30.5 per cent of the vote. Again, the Borissov pick of Tsacheva has been confirmed as a major misstep, and beyond question has lost Borissov and GERB votes. It left Borissov’s election night claim that next Sunday, his party had a good chance of winning, sounding rather questionable.





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.