If the opinion polls are correct, May 26 2019 will see Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s centre-right GERB party and Kornelia Ninova’s opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party in a tight scramble for the lion’s share of the country’s 17 seats in the European Parliament.
In third place will be the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, with which the BSP has a history of collusion, while of late Borissov’s GERB has forged an allegiance with the MRF in the National Assembly on crucial votes, leading the BSP to jealously claim that the real governing coalition in Bulgaria is a GERB-MRF one.
Ninova’s BSP is clearly hoping to invoke the principle of 2014, when it was on the backfoot while engaged in a politically fatal coalition with the MRF. Five years ago, that vote was effectively a referendum on the so-called “Oresharski” government, which had brought ordure on itself by appointing controversial figure Delyan Peevski as head of the State Agency for National Security.
That fateful, if not fatal, decision brought thousands of Bulgarians on to the streets in protest against the appointment – swiftly rescinded – of Peevski. The 2014 European Parliament vote, as a plebiscite on the “Oresharski” government, was among the final steps that made it clear that the administration was politically unsustainable. Ninova is hoping for a victory, even a Phyrric advantage of a single seat, to argue that if 2014’s result was a signal for the incumbent government to go, so should a similar result in 2019 be.
Now, in 2019, the picture is slightly different. The battle again is between GERB and the BSP, but there is again a scramble for a seat or two, the leftovers of the pickings.
Once the big three have had their fill, the contest is perhaps for a seat or two.
Among the contenders is the Democratic Bulgaria coalition, a reformist grouping mustered around Hristo Ivanov, who resigned as justice minister from Boiko Borissov’s second government on a point of principle after Parliament approved what Ivanov saw as fatally compromised judicial reform. Ironically, according to reports on March 30, Democratic Bulgaria will nominate as its list leader – and thus the only candidate on its list with a chance of getting an EP seat – the politician who hailed that compromise as “historic” – Radan Kanev, a former leading light in the Reformist Bloc, then the minority partner in Borissov’s administration.
Then there is the United Patriots, the awkward squad of ultra-nationalist and far-right parties that is the current minority partner in the third Borissov government. In recent months, this grouping has spent less time on its agenda of xenophobia, intolerance, facile pseudo-patriotism and Islamophobia than on its own internal infighting. Together, its three constiuent parties may win a seat in the European Parliament, and thus join with the threat of others of its intolerant kin; separately, the chances of its individual constituent parties remain unclear.
Among the big players, Borissov’s GERB is running on its record, on a campaign based on its pro-EU orientation, and hoping not to be damaged by the recent controversy that saw a number of senior figures resign their posts over allegations that they got “luxury” apartments at cut-price.
The BSP is desperately seeking to portray itself and its list leader as the battlers against corruption. It histrionically seeks to portray its top MEP candidate, a former journalist Elena Yoncheva, as the masthead of such, decrying her criminal charges for large-scale money-laundering as political persecution.
The BSP faces some minor damage from a minor rival, ABC, the political party formed around former BSP leader and former president Georgi Purvanov. In a move apparently reliant on confusion among elder voters, ABC has signalled its intention to stand in the May 2019 elections as the “Coalition for Bulgaria”. Purvanov gave the BSP and its minor allies that brand years ago, though more recent leaders of the BSP have abandoned the label. Ninova has dubbed the current BSP group as “BSP leftist Bulgaria”, a name not quite to conjure with (the grouping’s name might also be translated as “BSP Left Bulgaria”, which their detractors regard as something of a charming notion). It is improbable that ABC will get anything more than the most miniscule share of seats. However, the “Coalition for Bulgaria” label may confuse their electorate sufficiently to damage the BSP slightly.
Ninova, who is leading her party in a sustained boycott of the National Assembly for reasons which set it free to campaign, has offered her “Vision for Bulgaria”, a tedious document which reads more like a hallucination than a vision. Still, the pretentious verbiage of the document is likely to play less for Ninova than her strident insistence that Borissov’s GERB represents a self-serving, corrupt status quo.
There are a few other minor parties, hardly worth recording here, for the likelihood that any of their number would see the interior of the European Parliament only with a visitor’s ticket. As noted, in the scramble for the leftovers after GERB, the BSP and the MRF win whatever they do, there may be a seat for Ivanov’s Democratic Bulgaria and its Kanev candidacy; and given the ultra-nationalist vote, perhaps one for one of the warring factions of the less-than-united United Patriots.
As it is, the electorate that will turn out on May 26 in Bulgaria will be the respective hard cores of each grouping. That weekend will be a three-day one, because May 24 is a public holiday. That at least some significant number of voters will be away from the ballot booths of home will have an impact; and when the night of that Sunday is at its darkest hours, the signals may be difficult to read, though the respective party leaders will be desperate to proffer their respective interpretations, and each, as is customary in the grim rituals of Bulgarian election nights, to explain how – really – they won.