Bulgaria’s 2019 local elections: Notes from week five

To channel Highlander, Sunday is coming – and there can only be one. In Sofia and 18 other cities that are capitals of districts, run-off elections are being held to decide who will be mayor for the next four years.

The October 27 mayoral elections saw only one of the big five cities in Bulgaria decide its mayor at the first round, Bourgas. Besides Sofia, in Plovdiv, Varna and Rousse, the contest is now between each two candidates who got the largest share of votes last Sunday.

In Sofia: Mutual mudslinging

In Sofia, where incumbent mayor and GERB candidate Yordanka Fandukova is facing off against socialist-backed independent challenger Maya Manolova, things have been getting nasty. Very nasty.

Manolova has gone full-blown negative, hurling allegations that large-scale vote-buying in Roma neighbourhoods of Bulgaria’s capital city is taking place to boost Fandukova. She has made these allegations the core of her second-round bid.

“The entire underworld is being mobilised to get Mrs Fandukova elected,” Manolova said, referring to “underworld” in the sense of organised crime, rather than demonic, though there are a few hours of campaigning to run and who knows what to expect next. Get thee behind me, Satan.

Manolova’s campaign put its allegations to the Prosecutor-General’s Office, only to get a response – made public – that the allegations were too vague for specific investigation.

The aggressiveness of the allegations, however, seemed to make Fandukova’s normally composed poise slip a bit.

Fandukova: “Manolova says that I am an honourable person. I cannot say the same about her”. Ouch.

“She is now ready even to support a protest against herself to win more votes,” Fandukova said, in a scathing reference to Manolova’s late entry into the ranks of those protesting against the appointment of Ivan Geshev as Bulgaria’s next Prosecutor-General.

GERB leader and Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, in a November 1 television interview, had much to say on the squabble in Sofia about alleged vote-buying in Roma residential areas.

“Everyone knows that Roma votes cannot change anything in Sofia,” Borissov said, going on to allege that on Sunday, “several groups of Roma will be filmed going to vote for Fandukova and this will be uploaded to the net…I know these people. They can’t think of anything else”.

Borissov went on to allege that Manolova had gone to a Roma area on Thursday night to negotiate with residents so that they would allege that Fandukova had paid them to vote for her. He told the interviewer to ask Manolova to confirm where she was at 7.30pm on Thursday night. Borissov alleged that he had been told by an “indignant” insider from the Manolova campaign what was being prepared for Sunday.

On Friday afternoon, Manolova said that she would take court action against Borissov. “I am ashamed of the Prime Minister. I am ashamed of the lies, slanders and insults he has uttered nationally today,” she said.

In Plovdiv: Promises, promises

In Plovdiv, things this week were less vituperative, though these days of mudslinging in Sofia would have been hard to beat.

GERB candidate Zdravko Dimitrov, who faces a run-off against ultra-nationalist Slavcho Atanassov on November 3, told a television interviewer that in the past month, he had had more than 260 meetings.

“I’ve talked to thousands of Plovdiv people, I know what they expect from me and I have solutions,” Dimitrov said.

He went on to promise solutions to Plovdiv’s traffic problems, saying that he had already had meetings with experts from Sofia and elsewhere in Europe. Public transport would be optimised. The financial state of the municipality would be improved, by increasing the collection rate, improving the performance of municipal companies and cost-optimisation.

That should get them hurtling to the ballot boxes on Sunday.

Dimtrov also referred to the “huge advantage” GERB had in the mayoral election in Plovdiv. He ended October 27 with a 20-point lead over Atanassov.

This is the place for a lesson in recent political history in Plovdiv. In 2015, at the first round, the then GERB candidate, Ivan Totev, had a lead of about 18 points over his rival – the same Atanassov. At the first round, Totev got 39.55 per cent and Atanassov 21.12 per cent. Notwithstanding that 18-point lead, the run-off vote was a close-run thing: Totev 50.73 per cent, Atanassov 49.27 per cent. Amid acrimony, it took a court decision to confirm that Totev had won.

On November 1, Atanassov issued a media statement, listing 17 commitments. These ranged from meeting the citizenry “every day”, an investigation into Totev’s term as mayor, transparency in public procurement, various infrastructure projects and an audit of the Plovdiv 2019 Foundation (remember, it was the ultra-nationalists backing Atanassov who very publicly had a hissy fit about the Foundation’s 7000 leva for Balkan Pride).

“Eighty per cent of Plovdiv citizens did not support GERB – there is an alternative. I will count on all my fellow citizens who want to change the current vicious model of government. I will count on everyone because the support so far has shown that I am typically the majority candidate,” Atanassov said separately, in a television interview.

In Varna: Infighting runs red

In Varna, things were livelier in the run-off between GERB’s Ivan Portnih and his ultra-nationalist challenger, Vuzrazhdane’s Kostadin Kostadinov, but not because of anything much in the contest between them, but because of the infighting in the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which ran third in the Black Sea city’s first-round mayoral contest.

Well ahead of the election, there had been ructions in the BSP in Varna, because city leader Borislav Gutsanov and others had wanted Kostadinov to be the party’s candidate. BSP national leadership ensured that the nomination went to Anelia Klisarova.

After the first-round vote, the BSP Varna issued a statement endorsing Kostadinov in the second-round vote, a position emanating from the Gutsanov camp. This immediate put BSP city campaign chief Ivan Ivanov and Klisarova at odds with him (again) with Klisarova alleging that Gutsanov had been working for Kostadinov before the first round.

The Gutsanov camp told local media that endorsing Kostadinov was a legitimate move because of the stated position of BSP national leader Kornelia Ninova that anti-GERB candidates should be backed.

Ivanov called for the expulsion from the BSP of those who had endorsed Kostadinov. There was “no way” that the BSP could back Kostadinov, who among other things was a keen supporter of the Lukov March, Ivanov said, referring to the annual torchlight parade in Sofia in tribute to a pro-Nazi general who was a leader of the fascist Legionnaires in Bulgaria at the time of the Second World War.

Klisarova called on BSP supporters in Varna to “vote their conscience”.

In Rousse: Ripples on the Danube

In Rousse, the BSP was on a better footing. Its mayoral candidate, Pencho Milkov, came out ahead of GERB’s Diana Ivanova at the first round of voting on October 27.

Not unlike the situation with the BSP in Varna, Ivanova became GERB’s candidate after intervention from on high, displacing the GERB mayor Plamen Stoilov who had won a first-round victory four years ago. Ivanova was handed the mayoral candidacy even though Stoilov had received the most nominations from local structures of GERB in Rousse. He bowed out, and on October 27, Ivanova got 25.13 per cent of the vote, just more than 10 points behind the BSP’s Milkov.

On November 1, Ivanova issued a direct appeal to voters in Rousse, “I hope that on November 3, we will make the right choice for Rousse…in order for our city to continue its European development and together to follow one direction – building on what has been achieved and a better future for our children”.

There was more of this verbiage, which hardly seemed the stuff to deal the political death blow to Milkov.

In a paid-publication interview with a Rousse website posted on November 1, Milkov was asked what he expected from Sunday’s run-off.

“I do not make forecasts, there are enough specialists who do that. Let me tell you something – in my many meetings, I became convinced that everyone wanted a change. Some do not believe we will have the strength for it, but it is up to us,” he said.

Bulgaria’s 2019 local elections: Factfile



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.