It may be a sign of how tight the race is for top spot in Bulgaria’s May 2019 European Parliament elections that Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB party made much on March 20 of its alliance with a party that is largely a spent force and may garner it little in the vote.
Following a meeting on the morning attended by Borissov, GERB parliamentary leader Tsvetan Tsvetanov and Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) leader Roumen Hristov, Borissov announced that GERB and the UDF would stand together in the May 26 vote.
The announcement hardly meant that GERB had caught a big fish. The UDF, which in the late 1990s was the pre-eminent right-wing political force in Bulgaria, is a very pale shadow of its former self.
Since its defeat in the June 2001 election at the hands of former monarch Simeon Saxe-Coburg’s party, the UDF has undergone a series of attempts at resuscitation, under a succession of eight leaders, counting Hristov.
In recent years, where it has been present on the political landscape at all, it has been as a constituent part of a short-lived grouping, such as the Blue Coalition and later the Reformist Bloc.
The most recent poll, in January 2019, by Alpha Research – arguably about the most reliable opinion survey agency in Bulgaria – made no specific mention of the UDF. That poll, which said that were European Parliament elections were to be held now, GERB would get 32 per cent and the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party 30 per cent, said that “other parties” collectively would get nine per cent. These “other parties” presumably included the UDF.
The same poll said that Hristo Ivanov’s Democratic Bulgaria, effectively a rump party of the Reformist Bloc, would on its own get about 5.5 per cent. However, talks on standing together in the European Parliament elections between the UDF and Democratic Bulgaria got nowhere, with Democratic Bulgaria accusing the UDF of choosing the “Borissov model”.
Borissov, in return for the UDF’s co-operation, is promising it one electable seat and two places on GERB’s list of candidates for Bulgaria’s 17 seats in the European Paliament. With polls suggesting that GERB could get about six or perhaps seven seats (allowing for the questionability of such predictions, with the vote still two months away), that is a significant move.
Still, the deal with the UDF gives Borissov something to show Joseph Daul, president of the EU-wide centre-right European People’s Party, who earlier in March 2019 sent letters to the four EPP-affiliated parties in Bulgaria urging them to stand together in May.
GERB and the UDF were two of the four on the list. A third – part of the Democratic Bulgaria coalition – flatly refused to stand with GERB, leaving the fourth, the Bulgaria for Citizens Movement, as the remaining minnow for Borissov to catch. Like the UDF, its place in the opinion polls is likely covered by Alpha Research’s “other parties” category.
GERB is yet to announce its full MEP candidates list, which it intends to do on March 31, and will hold further talks on detail with the UDF before then.
Facing off in May with GERB will be Kornelia Ninova’s Bulgarian Socialist Party, which has a track record of standing in elections with coalitions, though generally with parties so obscure as to be only heard of at election time. This time around, one appears to be one of Bulgaria’s “green” parties. The model as before; a coalition with the BSP as the tree, with a bonsai or two for accompanying decoration.
ABC, the party founded by former BSP leader and former president Georgi Purvanov and a party latterly wanly thin, is on its third leader since Purvanov stepped down as leader. It also did not rate a name-check by Alpha Research in January, presumably also lurking in the “other parties” category. ABC, made up of former BSP members, made overtures to Ninova’s party but these have been received with scant enthusiasm in public by the BSP.
Currently boycotting the National Assembly, the BSP has shown little growth since Ninova became leader and like all other political parties of significance in Bulgaria, appears lately to have lost support among a public apparently weary of a landscape made cacophonous by a succession of transient scandals.
GERB appears poised to run its campaign on portraying itself as the most pro-European party, and one that is of one mind with the mainstream of the EPP. Ninova has pushed forward former journalist and non-party member Elena Yoncheva to be the BSP’s top candidate and has telegraphed that her party would seek to project a “corruption-fighting” image.
However and to what extent these respective messages resonate with Bulgaria’s electorate, it is an open question whether catching minnows – in return for large pieces of bait – will win anyone the largest share of votes in May. But presumably the rival battalions each see some advantage in adding a small platoon or two.
With the polls showing electoral prospects so close, part of Borissov’s strategy may be strength in numbers. But augmenting his forces with such a small party, and giving away an MEP’s seat to do so, may also prompt some to sense a whiff of desperation.