Bulgaria’s 2019 local elections: Notes from week one

Around the time of the official start of campaigning a week ago ahead of Bulgaria’s autumn 2019 municipal elections, there was something of a minor increase in the sale of candles in Bulgarian Orthodox churches.

Any number of candidate mayors in various municipalities headed to church to light candles and seek blessings, and to be seen and photographed doing so.

This is not a surprising move, in a country where the majority profess affiliation to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Every little bit helps, starting out on the campaign trail.

It was notable, then, that on September 30, the governing body of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Holy Synod, posted on its website a brief notice reminding of the church’s rules regarding elections.

The reminder, quoting church canon and resolutions, said that clergy may not be candidate councillors and mayors, and said that blessings requested by political parties may be conducted only on church premises “and the salutation of the clergy should be spiritual”.

The Holy Synod offered no particular reason for issuing the reminder, though one Bulgarian media report pointed out that one of the candidate mayors in Vurshets municipality is a priest, who had taken leave to campaign. The report said that this would not get him out of the woods, because canon law required him to resign his vocation if he was going into politics.

Much more notable was, however, the enthusiasm that had been shown by Nikolai, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church Metropolitan of Plovdiv, for Zdravko Dimitrov, the mayoral candidate of Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s party.

In an address far too lengthy to be quoted in full (it is more than 1200 words in the Bulgarian-language original), Nikolai said of Dimitrov: “He is a believing man, a good son of our Holy Church, and a generous and sincere contributor to it. He does not want to be praised for the good works he has helped in the cause of the church in the Diocese of Plovdiv, but I assure you that his good works are numerous and significant”.

After some meanderings on how the fall of Ancient Egypt’s civilisation and the pyramids represented the futility of human folly, Nikolai called down God’s blessings on Dimitrov.

Nikolai has form in endorsing Dimitrov. He did so with equal enthusiasm in the Plovdiv mayoral elections in 2015, when Dimitrov had broken ranks with GERB to stand as a rival to the party’s official candidate, Ivan Totev. Nikolai went so far as to criticise Totev’s absence from church and implied that he was an atheist. That year, Totev won and Dimitrov ran fourth out of 14 mayoral candidates.

Pride and prejudice

The event to gain the most headlines in the first week of campaigning was the debacle deliberately unleashed on Bulgarian National Television’s Referendum programme by Volen Siderov, leader of the ultra-nationalist Ataka party and a candidate Sofia mayor.

Matters got sufficiently out of hand in the live broadcast that two gendarmerie appeared on the studio floor, but could do little because Siderov, as a member of the National Assembly, has immunity by law from police intervention. BNT, however, has banned him from further appearances, and the Central Election Commission has ordered him fined for his behaviour on the show.

That behaviour included claiming that Angel Dzhambazki, the MEP who is the Sofia mayoral candidate for the also ultra-nationalist VMRO party, is gay.

Rather wittily, Sofia Pride posted on Facebook its support for Dzhambazki, adding that were he prepared to change his political views, Pride’s organising committee is open to all.

Rather testily, several hours later Dzhambazki responded on Facebook that he is simply “a white, heterosexual man”.

Addressing himself to Sofia Pride, he said that a vote for VMRO would mean “order and security in the city” and were he to become mayor, Sofia Pride would be banned (of the 20 Sofia mayoral candidates in 2019, Dzhambazki is one of four, all far-right ultra-nationalists, who have pledged to ban Sofia Pride).

“Whoever’s doing whatever, under the quilt – not on the streets!” said Dzhambazki, who said that he politely was refusing Sofia Pride’s declared support.

Promises, promises

There are 36 288 candidates in Bulgaria’s autumn 2019 local elections, of whom 6773 are candidate mayors, either at municipal, district or mayoralty level.

That’s a lot of promises. Here are just a few from the first week of campaigning.

In the Sofia Izgrev district on October 3, incumbent Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandukova visited renovated kindergartens, speaking of the theme of how, if re-elected, her administration would continue to invest in modernising kindergartens and schools.

For her team, the priorities were investment in infrastructure, improvement of the urban environment and air quality, Fandukova said.

Her main rival in the Sofia mayoral race, former Ombudsman Maya Manolova, spent part of her day on the campaign trail on October 3 holding forth on the topic of the heating system, while meeting Sofia University students the same day, she promised more investments in Studentski Grad (the dormitory area of the city for university students), more buses to Studentski Grad (there are three, and that was too few, she said) while also promising better pavements, for the sake of mothers with prams and people in wheelchairs.

In Plovdiv, Zdravko Dimitrov met the Union of Plovdiv Writers (no, I didn’t know there was one either, but am thinking of sending in an application), promising them a new building to carry out their creative endeavours. It would be in the Old Town and would be very nice, he said. Local media pointed out that the Union of Plovdiv Writers used to have a home, in the Lamartin House apparently, but had gone without for some several years.

If only such a building would be for English-language writers. Then it could be called the Writer’s Block.

His main rival in the city, Slavcho Atanassov, who is standing on a ticket backed by the VMRO and the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, was also out and about, promising to stabilise the city’s finances, disclosing that his team had projects for three new parks in Plovdiv, and promising that if elected, he would hold a reception for citizens every day – a reception, that is, in the sense that British MPs hold clinics. His door would be open, Atanassov said.

In Rousse, GERB candidate Diana Ivanova announced her programme on September 30, a lengthy one including several priorities, among them youth, the environment, the connection between education and the needs of the private sector, clean air, transport and sport for all age groups. As reported previously, for Ivanova the campaign is complicated, because not without dissent among the local party, she has been nominated in the place of the incumbent mayor, who in 2015 won a first-round victory on the GERB ticket.

Elsewhere in the Danube city, Bulgarian Socialist Party Pencho Milkov visited the Avko company on October 2, according to a publication in Bulgarian-language media paid for by his campaign. Avko has been around for 30 years and exports engineering-related products to 39 countries. It was not very clear from the paid publication why Milkov went there, but the details about the company itself were rather interesting.

‘I don’t support anyone’

The Central Election Commission, which naturally is having a rather busy time of things, held its customary regular briefing for the media on Thursday.

CEC management showed the media sample ballot papers for the municipal elections, which given the requirements of the 265 municipalities and the fact of numerous candidates, run to the rather large, and probably – as one reporter noted – would have to be folded four times to get through the slot in the ballot box.

CEC’s head Alexander Andreev also reminded that one of the options on the ballot paper is the box “I don’t support anyone”.

Campaigning ends three weeks from today, and it remains to be seen how popular that option becomes.


Bulgaria’s 2019 local elections: Factfile

Bulgaria’s 2019 local elections: The battle for Sofia has begun

Bulgaria’s 2019 local elections: Who will be the next mayor of Plovdiv?

Bulgaria’s 2019 local elections: The battle for Varna

Bulgaria’s 2019 local elections: The ‘battle’ for Bourgas

Bulgaria’s 2019 local elections: The battle for Rousse



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.