For most Bulgarian officials, having your taxpayer-funded car taken away would be a matter of inconvenience, and possibly indignation. For Ombudsman Maya Manolova, it has put her on the high road to even higher popularity.
Manolova’s political career began when she joined the Bulgarian Socialist Party in 1989, the year that the country began the transition to democracy from the communist era. She was a member of three successive parliaments from 2005, becoming Deputy Speaker of the third, the ill-fated 42nd National Assembly.
Her role as deputy presiding officer of the legislature at the time of the “Oresharski” government, which was the target of protests that began with the short-lived appointment of controversial figure Delyan Peevski as head of the State Agency for National Security, made her a figure reviled during the widely-supported protests.
Yet today, that is a memory. As Ombudsman, an office that she has occupied since October 2015, Manolova has become one of the most popular figures in Bulgaria. While her predecessors maintained a low public profile, Manolova has been prominent in her actions and appearances.
Taking a broad interpretation of the scope of her role, she launched the “Easter for Everyone” charity campaign, has been to be found at the scene of many protests – over various causes – in numerous Bulgarian cities and towns, and even initiated legislation, handing it over to be tabled on her behalf. All of this and more has gained her the image of someone who genuinely cares for ordinary Bulgarians, who otherwise – opinion polls show – have little faith in the institutions of state and government that they see as indifferent and unsympathetic.
It has been a steady upward ride for Manolova, whose only reverse was her thwarted ambition in August 2016 to return to the BSP as its leader. She pulled out of the race, citing “backroom deals”. The post went to Kornelia Ninova, who has achieved almost nothing in making herself and her party popular. Whether after Bulgaria’s May 2019 European Parliament elections or the municipal elections in autumn 2019, Ninova may face paying the price of failure.
Manolova, now deprived of the use of a National Security Service car and driver, announced that she would travel by long-distance bus and train. November 6 found her on the Sofia – Varna train, using her compartment as a mobile office in which to receive the citizenry.
The Ombudsman’s office helpfully posted the train timetable. Few could fail to notice, as perhaps (unintended? A word to which we shall return) that Manolova was travelling on a second-class ticket.
The media attention was considerable. “Public transport is for Bulgarian citizens and should therefore be for the representatives of institutions as well as for politicians,” Manolova told reporters. Public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television noted that Manolova shared with her fellow-passengers the inconvenience of a failed heating system, adding in the detail that this was removed at Mezdra station.
It was one of the more notable uses of a train in public life. In the US, trains historically played a key role, giving us the imagery of a whistle-stop tour. There have, also historically, been notable long-distance train rides by politicians, remembered for these being funeral trains (FDR, and Cecil Rhodes, spring to mind) or into exile (Bulgaria’s Tsar Boris III, among others).
Manolova denies that the bus and train rides are part of an election campaign.
“I have another two years in office as Ombudsman, I feel great in this role, I’m good for people. I love people, they love me. What more do I want?” she enthused to the camera.
It was not quite, however, an ordinary rail journey. Bulgarian state railways BDZ provided for Manolova’s train a freshly-washed diesel locomotive that would be quite the envy of everyday passengers used to the sight of engines in somewhat grubbier states.
While praising Manolova, one of the Bulgarians interviewed made a royal connection, noting that Boris III was a keen amateur engine driver. But then, perhaps people in public life do not mind being seen to have the common touch, while putting ordinary folk in mind of monarchy.
Manolova also did her bit for BDZ, which is groaning under a financial shortfall. Some of the passengers told the media that they had bought their train tickets just to ride with her and air their grievances.
However, it is a point to ponder, that while the Finance Minister said that Manolova lost her NSS wheels as part of cost-cutting, whether the bus and train service was her only resort. She said that her office did not have the budget for an extra car and the vehicles it had were being used by staff for their duties. For all that, the question has to be raised that, with Manolova travelling on official business, she is fully entitled to formally assign herself provision for petrol money, and may use her own car. Given the Ombudsman’s salary, if she does not have one, she can certainly afford one.
Too unkind? No doubt, Manolova also may be making a small contribution against climate change (no one in her office has thought to point this out yet, but probably eventually will). One is also left to wonder what will happen in the event of a place not being conveniently reachable by train or bus, though for every village, the latter does exist, in some form.
Not to miss his own PR opportunity, Bulgarian television show host Slavi Trifonov made it known that he would give Manolova a car, mumbling something about being her employer, presumably through taxes paid to the state coffers. Perhaps we could all have a whip-round, thought one might think that, in theory, that is what taxes are for.
One does not see the Manolova option catching on, not unless there is to be a vogue for fitting flashing lights to the front of trains and buses carrying those in high office. Would it too unkind to suggest they prefer the gravy train, in its high-speed, German-made, police-escorted form? Besides, perhaps she now has a patent on the express train to the ordinary folk. Others, well, just missed the bus.
(Main photo: parliament.bg)