With a low turnout expected at the 5 July general election, the future of some political parties seems more uncertain than ever
First the voting, then the real challenges begin. Bulgaria goes to the polls, with the incumbent three-party ruling coalition led by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP, facing a resurgent opposition.
The government has lost popularity and international clout over allegations of corruption, docked EU funding and the winter gas crisis. Whatever way the country votes, though, it seems likely that the election will be followed by the usual bout of horse-trading. Looking beyond the heat and light of the political battles, unavoidable questions remain that will help determine the country's future.
Perhaps the most serious questions concern poll leader Citizens for a European Bulgaria, or GERB, and its de facto leader, Sofia Mayor Boyko Borisov. The first question is whether GERB can translate its opinion poll lead into a concrete result on polling day. Regularly scoring around 25 percent (Bulgarian opinion polls include a substantial proportion of people who say that they will not vote or are undecided), it generally has a lead of 5 percent or more over the BSP, but it remains to be seen whether the new party, founded in early 2007, can rely on its supposed supporters. This is particularly true for younger voters, who tend to go AWOL on polling day, while pensioners – many, perhaps most, BSP stalwarts – make it to the polls.
Nonetheless, Borisov is described by one observer as a "shoo-in" for prime minister. He has made his name as a no-nonsense figure from outside the political class, a jeans-clad Man of Action promising a fresh start for the country. For all his popularity, Borisov's vision for the country remains frustratingly opaque. GERB is a self-proclaimed centre-right party, but its defining feature is Borisov.
Borisov is an enthusiastic advocate of the reopening of the two reactors at Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant, shut down at the behest of the EU before Bulgaria joined in 2007, but the prospect of him being able to do so remains remote. Brussels quashed a similar request by the government during the gas crisis in early 2009. Beyond this, Borisov's appeal lies largely in his personality and his promise to "clean up" Bulgaria.
Sceptics wonder whether he will have any more success at purging the country of corruption than he has had in clearing Sofia's notoriously litter-strewn streets.
Posters on some bins in the capital joke that GERB stands for "Gospodi, Ela Razkaray Bokluka" – "Lord, come clear the rubbish."
Should he come to power, Borisov will face the task of reassuring both sceptical Bulgarians and international institutions that he is a safe pair of hands in a difficult time for the country and the world. He has thrived on being a maverick, but this may not wash in Brussels.
Pronouncements that Bulgaria's elderly and the Turkish and Roma minorities constitute "bad material" are rather short of statesmanship, though they go down well with many Bulgarians who think just that.
Borisov may draw encouragement from Bulgaria's neighbours: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Romanian President Traian Basescu were similarly no-nonsense mayors of Istanbul and Bucharest respectively.
Both opposed the incumbent parties in their central governments, and have transferred successfully to national politics, retaining widespread popularity. But as Borisov must know himself, approval ratings are one thing, ruling the country quite another.
One of the challenges that the election winner will almost certainly face is finding a suitable coalition partner – and each of the potential kingmakers have their own problems and questions to answer.
Perhaps the most natural partner for a GERB government would be the right-of-centre parties the Union of the Democratic Forces, or SDS, and Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, or DSB, the latter being an offshoot of the former, which governed Bulgaria between 1997 and 2001.
The parties seemed to have overcome their first challenge, which was reuniting (as "The Blue Coalition"), in early 2009. However, in April it emerged that some SDS figures, including its former leader Plamen Yurukov, remained implacably opposed to the union, and were attempting to register the SDS for elections as a separate entity.
The Blue Coalition parties have been polling anaemically, and a key rationale behind the reunion was to clear the 4 percent entry barrier. The grouping's support outside enclaves of urban professionals remains limited and, for voters with longer memories, rightwing promises to rid Bulgaria of corruption may ring rather hollow.
If he is not able to rely on the Blues – again, supposing GERB does indeed top the poll – Borisov may be forced to look further to the right, to the unequivocally-named, ultranationalist Ataka. The mayor has teamed up with Ataka's leader, Volen Siderov, in attacking the current government. Siderov is known for his furious broadsides at the Roma community and the influence of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or DPS, which draws most of its support from ethnic Turks.
As such, Ataka would be an unpalatable coalition participant in the eyes of the international community. The EU ostracised Austria publicly after that country's far-right Freedom Party entered government in 2000; given current unease in Brussels, the implications for Bulgaria could be more severe.
One Sofia-based analyst, however, a long-time observer of Bulgarian politics, told Vagabond that Ataka could in fact be preferable to the BSP from the EU's point of view, so tainted are the Socialists by charges of corruption and mismanagement. The nationalists would probably "behave themselves," he asserted. Possibly, but it is a chance that Bulgaria could do better not to take.
A third option could be a "grand coalition" between GERB and the BSP, uniting the two most popular parties in government – it works in Germany, so why not Bulgaria? Well, Bulgaria isn't Germany, for starters, and the Narodno Sabranie certainly isn't the Bundestag, and Borisov has made his name inveighing against the Socialists.
GERB's popularity stems in part from the fact that it is a new force. Partnering with the BSP would rather undermine this. Furthermore, the Socialists would surely be reluctant to play second fiddle to the maverick mayor. But both electoral arithmetic and the whims of Bulgarian politicians are difficult to second guess, so the possibility should not be ruled out.
Should the BSP be ejected from power, it will face challenges of its own, both internal and external. Maintaining its self-image as Bulgaria's natural party of government will be impossible without broadening its appeal beyond nostalgic geriatrics. It has to be said that the party has made a reasonably good fist of becoming a European Social Democratic party, but the task is incomplete. Stanishev's unashamedly pro-business stance has alienated some, and in April a breakaway party was formed, calling for a more overtly leftwing platform.
If Stanishev's head rolls in the aftermath of the poll, obvious successors are thin on the ground; if the unpurged old guard take control, progress may be stalled for years. The reformists' choice could be Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin; an experienced and likeable chap and an ally of President Georgi Parvanov.
The BSP's partners look likely to face divergent futures. Borisov's undisguised loathing of the DPS should rule it out as a coalition partner, though again one can't rule the possibility out. Wily veteran Ahmed Dogan retains a vice-like grip on the party, which has a vote-block even more reliable than the BSP's "Red Grannies." It is likely to remain a force on the Bulgarian political scene for the foreseeable future, though Dogan's business friends may start to look elsewhere, should the party lose its place in government in the long term.
The liberal National Movement for Stability and Progress, or NDSV, founded by the former king, Simeon, and in power from 2001 to 2005, however, faces obliteration: it has polled around 2 percent. With GERB and the Blues resurgent on the right, and a breakaway group of deputies from the NDSV looking to join them, the party faces the task of re-invention.
According to a possibly apocryphal but telling story, a child once asked of British Liberal Randolph Churchill "Mummy, what is that man for?" For all its admirable talk of reform, and experienced and talented politicians such as former Foreign Minister Solomon Passy and European Commissioner Meglena Kuneva, much the same question could be asked of the NDSV.
It's certainly not all over bar the voting.