President Parvanov has every chance of getting reelected. Will he blow it?
To make the ideal Bulgarian president, take one liberal helping of wild masculine beauty, preferably Marlon Brando style, and stir in generous amounts of energy and wealth until smooth. Add an Oxford diploma, a sprinkling of easily-invoked nostalgia and a large pinch of dedication to family and children. Mix thoroughly. Subtract 20 years from the usual age of a president, and add the mien of a Man Booker Prize winner - that of having important things to convey, but saying little.
Leave the candidate to bake for 30 to 40 days outside any political party, and see if he survives. Refrain from applying the usual technique of inserting a toothpick to check if he is done. You never know what it will have on it when you take it out.
Ideally, once ready, he should speak 37 percent of the time in English, to other countries' leaders, and 53 percent in Bulgarian, to the voters at home. He should also be a very wise politician, appear compassionate and concerned, and, very importantly, able to raise your salary.
Every five years, as presidential elections come round, Bulgarians try to compile a psychological profile of their ideal president, a pursuit the Bulgarian media is always happy to join in on. But as this exercise always turns up somewhat oxymoronic results, it seems the people are destined always to have to settle for second best.
How much Bulgarians need to compromise can be seen by looking at the man who has resided in the presidential office for the past five years. True, Georgi Parvanov was appropriately young for the post and apparently happily married. His levels of energy seemed to be fine, and his patriotism was gently but firmly in place. Thus he appeared to possess some of the necessary ingredients for president, but still lacked many, according to critics.
Nevertheless, Parvanov has tried hard to respond to people's high expectations. He has tried to compensate for his lack of brilliant intellect with rich political experience; and the lack of personal wealth with his strong desire for power.
The joker in his political game is his populism. His days in office have been mainly dedicated to the defence of a curious set of national values, ranging from the Cyrillic alphabet and Bulgarian history to a Soviet nuclear power plant. Being a president in a parliamentary republic, he couldn't have raised any pensions, but he tried. Or, rather, he made people believe he did. By calling a meeting to draft a strategy, which is neither his duty, nor his right, he can achieve little but get praise for his concern. He has employed this favourite technique in a number of sensitive areas of public life, deriving popularity from a zone far surpassing that defined in the Constitution.
And, he has been seen around, everywhere. Tripping along in folk dances at public gatherings, shaking hands with elderly people, and opening, opening, opening. From bridges and roads to tourist attractions, factories, kindergartens, art galleries, laboratories and sewage systems, Parvanov would open anything. A joke even started circulating that if you wanted to see your president, you just needed to build a kennel in your garden - he would surely arrive in time to cut the ribbon.
Five years on, he stands the best chance of another term in office, and the main reason is that the other candidates seem even further from the national presidential dream.
Nedelcho Beronov, the rightwing opposition's septuagenarian nominee, has the obvious setback of his age. Although 78 is not an unacceptable age for a president (Karolos Papoulias of Greece is 77 years old, Giorgio Napolitano of Italy is 81), it was immediately picked up on as a focus for attacks by other political forces and the media. His other serious disadvantage is that he is far too intelligent for voters' tastes, and this is something he is not able to hide. While Bulgarians allege that they value good education and a sharp intellect, history shows that they only forgive these virtues if they are well concealed behind a simple style. And Nedelcho Beronov seems to be hopelessly bad at populism.
Among the other five candidates, the most visible is the leader of the far-right party Ataka. Of the virtues required of the ideal president, Volen Siderov possesses only youth and energy, while his patriotism is distorted into ugly manifestations of racism and xenophobia.
Although his nationalistic rants, worse than Jörg Haider's some say, may attract surprisingly large support in Bulgaria, his extreme personality appeals to few but his angry hardcore followers. His appearance and political image are too forceful and malicious to be associated with the wholesome look so widely admired by Bulgarian voters.
In fact, whoever wins the Bulgarian presidential elections in 2006, it will be only because the national champion among politicians, Boyko Borisov, current mayor of Sofia, has decided not to stand as a candidate. This man is proof that in the preferences formula "sexy, but married", "sexy" is far more important. Possessing few of the secondary ingredients of the ideal president, he seems to have the main one in abundance; masculine charm. His machismo has kept him at the top of the Top 10 in politics for about five years now, easily ensuring him the position of mayor of Sofia at the end of 2005.
After some dramatic months of speculation and reflection, Borisov declared he wouldn't stand as a candidate in this presidential campaign. And although the real reasons for his decision were most likely of a different nature, it was a wise choice on his part, for to stretch yourself to fulfil the Bulgarian presidential ideal requires more mobility than Jackie Chan or ingenuity than 007.
The incumbent president likes to open things
Forty-nine years old and a passionate horo dancer, Georgi Parvanov is fighting for a second presidential mandate. A former leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, with an abiding interest in power, one could say he had every political reason for doing so. The growth of his popularity rating seemed to be unstoppable from his arrival in office in 2001. But then a few months ago the "Gotse" case suddenly surfaced, revealing his past involvement in the Communist Secret Services, under the alias Gotse. While the scandal caused his popularity to shrink by over 10 percent, it didn't damage critically Parvanov's chances of another five years in the presidential office.
Some have compared Siderov to Jörg Haider
The trademarks of the leader of the far right party Ataka are his black leather jacket and inflammatory invective. Ironically, his political career started as a voice of what was supposed to be the first wave of liberalism in Bulgaria. Former editor-in-chief of Demokratsiya, the first democratic daily in the early 1990s, he later worked for a couple of newspapers of dubious journalistic reputation, only to end up in 2001 as a parliamentary candidate for the centrist National Movement Simeon II party. Predictably, his bid failed, which only boosted his nationalistic TV appearances, resulting later in the foundation of Ataka. Whether this long route was a quest for power or just a search for his real personality the vengeful political character it produced was the same. Compare him to Jean-Marie Le Pen, Umberto Bossi and Nick Griffin and you won't be far off.
Septuagenarian Beronov is seen as being too polite
Modest, serious and up to scratch politically, Beronov chose the difficult route to popularity. Almost unknown at the beginning of the election campaign, he managed to build up an image as the intellectuals' dream president. Chairman of the Constitutional Court of Bulgaria since 2003 and a respected lawyer and university professor, he managed to achieve what had been considered impossible by uniting the numerous parties of the democratic wing. His success in this was partially due to his moderate personality, but could also be explained by the incapacity of their higher profile leaders to like and support each other.
The four remaining candidates are far less visible, varying from political veterans to newcomers. Ataka MP Petar Beron, for instance, is standing for a third time as a presidential candidate. His previous spectacular failures do not seem to have discouraged him in the least.
Georgi Markov, a former Constitutional Court judge, was a central political figure in the early days of democracy in Bulgaria, but now stands on the margins of political life. As an outsider of the current political establishment, he declares himself to be untainted by any allegations of abuse of power and threatens to immediately dissolve the current government, which he claims does not represent Bulgarian voters.
Lyuben Petrov, a retired army general, is known for his sentimental loyalty to conservative socialist ideology. He declared as his first priority the saving of Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant, while the EU is applying pressure for the early closure of the plant's older units because of concerns over safety standards. He also wants to terminate Bulgaria's military mission in Iraq and ban foreigners from buying land in Bulgaria.
Grigor Velev is an academic professor of medical sciences. He represents "The Whole of Bulgaria" Union of Bulgarian Nationalists, a little-known party whose slogan is "Modern, productive socialism". Velev's most appealing promise is the reform of the country's pitiful healthcare system.
What the President Can and Cannot Do
The Bulgarian presidential institution as defined by the Constitution is somewat schizophrenic. While presidents are elected in a direct first-past-the-post ballot, as in presidential republics such as Russia or France, the power they are given is very small, limited mainly to representative functions, similar to parliamentary republics where presidents are usually chosen by parliament. This imbalance has two consequences. Using their position of being personally chosen by the nation, a president tends to want to exercise more power than they are entitled to, exceeding the limits set by the Constitution. They are also able to easily embrace populist causes, expressing opinions on every matter, while being responsible for none of them.
The more important Constitutional rights and obligations of the Bulgarian president are those to veto bills, returning them to the parliament to be discussed and voted on anew; to function as supreme commander of the Bulgarian Army; to grant or revoke Bulgarian citizenship and to give asylum to refugees; and to award state medals. Also, the president is entitled to hand over to the parties in parliament mandates for forming a government, and in case they fail, to appoint a caretaker government.