With one week to go to Bulgaria’s March 26 2017 early parliamentary elections, party political platform issues were largely swept to the sidelines as the controversy over Turkish interference in the election predominated.
There were some notable moments in all of this, symbolic of shifting sands.
In the course of the week, Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Kornelia Ninova criticised the performance of the caretaker government in the face of Ankara’s intervention. She described the interim administration’s responses as inadequate.
Ninova was hardly the only one to do so, but the difference is that this caretaker government was appointed by President Roumen Radev, who won that office on a ticket backed by her party. Should a viable government be formed after the vote on March 26, caretaker Prime Minister Ogynan Gerdzhikov and his ministers will pass into political history. But should the elections see serious chaos or even successfully be challenged in court, there may be political liability for Radev, who was responsible for appointing an administration meant to deliver successful elections.
Another notable moment was the Movement for Rights and Freedoms’ verbal attacks on the Turkish ambassador in Sofia, Süleyman Gökçe.
“We will not permit either (DOST leader Lyutvi) Mestan nor Gökçe to determine how big Muslims we are, nor how small we are,” said MRF leader Mustafa Karadaya.
Karadaya, who became MRF leader after Mestan was ousted for backing Turkey against Russia in December 2015, quoted Kemal Ataturk: “Anyone who is against Bulgaria is as such against Turkey”.
“I shall paraphrase that from today’s point of view,” Karadaya said, saying that anyone who sought confrontation between Bulgaria and Turkey was opposed to both countries.
His remarks came against a background of many years that, while periodic surges in tensions in the always complex relations between Sofia and Ankara are not uncommon, Turkey for decades was a political sponsor of the MRF under Ahmed Dogan.
But much has changed, with Ankara now openly backing Mestan’s breakaway DOST, while the MRF has been trying to re-brand itself as a more broadly Bulgarian, “patriotic” party, even a nationalist one. However mutable the terms patriotism and nationalism may be, not only in Bulgaria.
March 17 saw the first public statement by MRF founder Ahmed Dogan since the late 2015 one that opened the way for the ouster of Mestan.
In the high-flown, pretentiously elaborate language favoured by much of Bulgarian academia, Dogan – who has a doctorate in philosophy – expounded on the theme of “unifying patriotism”.
As reported by Bulgarian news agency BTA, Dogan’s “political message” posted on the MRF website reasoned that Bulgarian unifying patriotism at present is largely based on the need of togetherness of diversity rather than on eliminating or regimentalizing otherness and differences in the ‘notorious melting pot’ of the ethnic nation and of the monolithic nation state. He sees it as being fundamentally different from European and regional nationalisms in that it does not treat the ethnic nation as an end in itself or as an underlying condition for social consolidation.
Dogan saw the lack of consensus on the country’s key priorities and the “chaotic replacement of elites” as one of the main reasons why “we are paying a high social price: a low standard of living, poverty and crazy populism.” Dogan was, “to put it mildly, perplexed, disturbed and concerned” by what he observes in the campaign profiles of the various political parties.
Annoyed by this, however much Dogan’s turgid verbiage was open to interpretation as to what on earth he was trying to get at (GERB leader Boiko Borissov, bizarrely, said that Dogan was opening the way for a coalition government with the nationalist United Patriots), Mestan’s DOST party released what it said was a Dogan letter from 2012 referring to Turkey as the “motherland”.
Mestan told a news conference that there was no Turkish intervention in Bulgaria’s elections and said that the “image of the enemy” was being conjured up to conceal a coming new coalition between the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the MRF.
The MRF said that the letter said to have been written in 2012 by Dogan was a fake.
While all of this was going on, Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry recalled the ambassador in Ankara, Nadezhda Neynski, to Sofia for consultations. Two days after the ministry announced this, Gerdzhikov said that she was being asked to brief the ministry on preparations in Turkey for the elections, and was being told how to respond in the event of conflict on election day. She would return to Turkey in a few days, Gerdzhikov said.
The government in Sofia underlined that there was “no change” in its stance on relations with Turkey. Bulgaria would continue to maintain a constructive dialogue with Turkey and considers unacceptable any external influence on the election process for the Bulgarian Parliament.
Most parties of any significance had something to say on the matter. For the nationalist United Patriots coalition – the NFSB, VMRO and Ataka – the Turkey debacle was the gift that keeps on giving, as it gave them ample opportunity to say rude things about Turkey. The United Patriots have called for, among other things, the expulsion of the Turkish ambassador and the closure of the border.
The centre-right New Republic coalition has called for Bulgaria not to open polling stations other than those in diplomatic and consular offices in Turkey. The Reformist Bloc-Glas Naroden coalition earlier called on President Roumen Radev and caretaker PM Gerdzhikov to “reconsider” the opening of polling stations in Turkey – a call that conveniently omitted the fact that, in law, neither the President nor the Prime Minister has the power to decide this; that is within the remit of the Central Election Commission, which in turn should be guided by the specifics of the Electoral Code and its provisions for determining where polling stations are, and how many there are.
After several days of not commenting on the demand to limit polling stations in Turkey, Gerdzhikov told reporters on March 17: “I do not who these political demands come from, but the law says how many polling stations there can be in non-EU countries. It is 35. There is no reason to violate this law”.
Mestan’s DOST, meanwhile, got a mention on the website of the Prosecutor-General, after an incident in the town of Razgrad on March 17 in which a campaign bus was vandalised, including having a swastika daubed on it. Subsequent unconfirmed reports said that someone had been detained, who had been drunk at the time of the incident, that happened while the bus was parked overnight outside an hotel.
The BSP’s Ninova, apart from her call on Gerdzhikov to “protect Bulgaria” in regard to intervention in the country’s domestic affairs, saw her chance to snipe at GERB over the Turkey issue.
“Action is needed. Stop the concession for the (Sofia) Airport and do not give this strategic object to Turkish companies and cancel Decree 208, with which Borissov obliges Bulgarian mayors to accommodate refugees in our municipalities,” Ninova said.
However fatuous Ninova’s comments about the airport concession bid and the accommodation of refugees may be, Borissov apparently felt vulnerable enough to issue some defensive messages.
Borissov said that his GERB party was the only one that never had been in a coalition government with the MRF, and neither would it form a coalition in which Mestan’s DOST participated. He added that it was his party’s policy for Muslims and Christians to be on an equal footing.
The past week saw media reports, on March 13, that 21 000 Bulgarians living in Turkey would be brought by bus to the southern town of Kurdzhali on election day. Physical clashes were predicted between supporters of DOST and of the MRF, the reports said. This was followed the next day by reports that there are 350 000 Bulgarian passport-holders in Turkey and if all of them voted, they would sending 25 to 30 MPs to the 240-seat National Assembly.
The Reformist Bloc-Glas Naroden coalition called for the “barring” of such buses.
On March 15, Stefan Yanev, the deputy prime minister in charge of the government’s role in preparations for elections, conceded to reporters that possible risks at the elections included the buses, migration pressure in parallel to this, and chaos at polling stations in foreign countries where there were large numbers of people with the right to vote.
Yanev came under political criticism for this, on the thesis that he was acknowledging the risks while it was unclear whether the caretaker government had an adequate plan to respond (later in the week, it said that it did, though details were not disclosed).
On March 18, Yanev followed up, by saying – during a visit to the border checkpoint at Malko Turnovo in south-eastern Bulgaria – that the government was prepared to protect the border, but given the current situation, there were no immediate steps planned to increase the number of personnel at the borders.
According to Yanev, the situation at Bulgaria’s borders was calm and, in fact, the number of attempts at illegal crossings of the border had decreased over the past two months. In that time, there had been just 17, he said.
Meanwhile, the headlines of the week regarding Bulgaria’s elections were not all just about Turkey.
The Central Election Commission upheld a complaint by Hristo Ivanov’s Yes Bulgaria and the New Republic coalition against a defamatory book distributed by Telegraf, a daily publication linked to Delyan Peevski, the media mogul and candidate to return to his seat as an MRF MP. The commission ordered Telegraf fined though it saw no basis to penalise Peevski himself.
The sequel was a report in Monitor, another daily publication linked to Peevski, which covered the Telegraf affair by showing the cover of the book and referring to Ivanov’s party by writing the first word of its name in Bulgarian not as “yes” but as “give” (not the first time this has been done by media hostile to Ivanov). The headline of the Monitor article thus was, in translation: “‘Give, Bulgaria!’ tries to silence Telegraf”.
Yes Bulgaria complained to the commission about the Monitor item, with the CEC upholding its complaint and ordering Monitor fined.
The Peevski stable was not only the only one on the receiving end of fines from the CEC this week. Television station bTV was ordered fined because of a satirical item on one of its programmes that showed a nude photograph of United Patriots co-leader and Ataka leader Volen Siderov. The so-called “competition” depicting nude photographs according second place to Siderov, behind chalga star Azis. The commission found that this violated election rules forbidding attacks on a candidate’s honour, decency and dignity.
By the week’s end, a number of opinion polls had come out, from various agencies, all showing – as has been the case throughout the campaign period – a tight race between GERB and the BSP for first place, with the likelihood of the United Patriots coming third, in a Parliament with five to six parliamentary groups. As noted previously, most polling agencies got it wrong ahead of the first round of Bulgaria’s presidential elections in November 2016, and some time after 8pm next Sunday, it will become clear how well or otherwise they have done with these elections.