Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) leader Kornelia Ninova said on May 27 that she would ask the party’s executive committee to call a leadership contest after the socialists came a distant second in the European Parliament elections held on May 26.
Ninova said that she intended to stand for re-election as party leader and did not resign her position as head of the party, saying that she would do so only after BSP’s extended executive, the national council, approved the rules for the leadership contest.
Under the party’s recently-amended statute, all party members would cast ballots in the leadership election, as opposed to local party organisations appointing delegates to the party congress to elect a new leader, as was the practice previously.
Ninova’s announcement came at the party’s first news conference after the European Parliament elections, where BSP came a distant second to Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s centre-right GERB party, despite some opinion polls showing the socialists neck and neck with just over a week before the election.
With 95 per cent of the ballots counted, the socialists were second with 24.2 per cent of the vote, compared to GERB’s 30.9 per cent, according to Central Electoral Commission data.
Ninova acknowledged the defeat, pointing to internal factors – a likely reference to dissent over the ordering of the party’s prospective MEPs list – and external ones such as “the corporate vote, the use of the state administration and people’s fear” as the major reasons, while dismissing any criticism for the party’s continued absence from Parliament.
BSP’s MPs quit taking their seats in the National Assembly in February in protest over Electoral Code amendments in a move seen as a prelude to triggering snap polls. But, if it has been speculated, it was meant to paralyse Parliament by making it more difficult to achieve quorum (BSP has 79 MPs in the 240-seat legislature), it has largely been ineffectual.
“I do not think that our absence from Parliament influenced the results. Most analysts and opinion polls have said that we were leading or tied with GERB two weeks before the election, when we were not in Parliament. Our absence did not have an impact then. Something else happened in those two weeks and we will analyse the reasons, but our absence from Parliament was not it,” she said.
She said that the executive council meeting on May 28 would also be asked to vote on a proposal for BSP MPs to return to the National Assembly.
Ninova also found some glimmer of hope in the party’s showing at the polls, saying that it was the only one to receive more votes than at the previous European Parliament election in May 2014. It was also tipped to win five MEP seats, one more than at the previous election.
But she resisted making too much of the numbers. “You do not expect me to say, despite those good things, that we are the moral winners. We have heard that in previous years in the party,” she said, a barb at one of her predecessors as party leader, Sergei Stanishev.
Stanishev, now head of the Party of European Socialists, emerged as the focal point of the internal dissent in designating BSP’s MEP nominees, with Ninova’s proposal leaving his name off the list altogether, only to be overruled by the party’s national council, which put Stanishev in fifth spot.
On election night, Stanishev appeared to criticise the party leadership, although he never outright named Ninova as the reason for the socialists’ poor showing. “Before the campaign we lost too much time in internal dissent. That defect was never fixed during the campaign,” he said, as quoted by Focus news agency.
“Instead of having a joint campaign of everyone one the list, we had parallel campaigns of the candidates. That will hardly attract peripheral voters,” he said, while also criticising the party’s continued absence from Parliament.
Again without directly mentioning Ninova, Stanishev also hinted that this was the second time that Ninova’s leadership cost the party victory in an election.
“In 2017, when there was another favourable situation for BSP, we all expected to win those elections, but we lost. Despite a good result and increasing the number of MPs from 40 to 60, we did not carry out a proper analysis of the reasons for the loss. It seems that the same situation is being repeated now, which is becoming a systemic problem,” he said.
At the snap parliamentary polls in March 2017, BSP was buoyed by the recent success in having its nominee, Roumen Radev, defeat GERB candidate Tsetska Tsacheva in presidential elections six months earlier. But the party finished second at the polls, with 27.9 per cent of the vote to GERB’s 33.5 per cent.
That has put heavy pressure on Ninova as party leader, especially given her low public approval rating in opinion polls when compared to the high approvals for Radev and Ombudsman Maya Manolova, a former rival to Ninova in the previous party leadership contest.
The new leadership contest called by Ninova could be seen as an attempt to head off internal party opposition before the local elections in October, when another poor showing against GERB, which traditionally does well in local polls, could further erode support for Ninova as party leader to a breaking point.
It would also make it more difficult for Manolova, who has so far indicated that she intends to see out her term as Ombudsman to its end in 2020, to throw her hat in the ring in the leadership contest. (Radev, despite being nominated by the socialists for the presidency and close policy positions to the party, is precluded by the constitution from being a member of a political party while he is president.)
Ninova did not give a firm timeline for the leadership contest but said that she was hopeful that it could conclude in “a month or two.”
(Ninova, centre, at the news conference on May 27 2019. Photo: bsp.bg)