by Yavor Dachkov; photography by BTA

Ironically, the European parliament will not contain the parties that enabled Bulgaria's EU membership

abandoned house.jpg

If you want to find the political party or individual who won Bulgaria's first European parliamentary election, you will need the patience of Job. The only clear winner to emerge from the fog of apathy and confusion on 20 May was Ahmed “The Falcon” Dogan, the leader of the Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and a politician well versed at extracting leverage from a crisis. However, the losers were many and varied.

This is especially true of the rightwing parties. Paradoxically, neither the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) nor the Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB), gained any seats in the European Parliament. It's ironic that neither of these successors to the United Democratic Forces (ODS), the government that overcame the economic crisis of 1997 and pushed the country to join the EU and NATO, failed to gain representation. The fallout in one case was very quick. Petar Stoyanov, the SDS leader and former Bulgarian president, resigned and withdrew from politics. Ivan Kostov, the DSB leader and former prime minister, chose not to quit. But even if he stays at the helm of his party – one which particularly values strong leadership – he will only postpone its agony.

Both the SDS and the DSB, in the light of their election disaster, now seem doomed. A new, broad rightwing formation will probably come to occupy the ground they are destined to vacate. Despite the right wing's recent poor showing, such a new party could still have good prospects. Many Bulgarians disapprove of the tripartite coalition or at best only support it half-heartedly. They also oppose the populism of the oppositionist Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and Ataka. This is why the abstention rate topped 70 percent in May, a clear sign that there is currently no obvious frontrunner.

The Socialists also paid dearly for second place. Several months before the election, the party dissolved into faction fighting. The corruption scandal between Energy Minister Rumen Ovcharov and Angel Aleksandrov, head of the National Investigation Service, was the most obvious sign. This was rather odd and even paranoid behaviour for an otherwise well-organised party such as the BSP. But perhaps not so surprising when you consider it stemmed from a power struggle among its big guns. These include President Georgi Parvanov, Rumen Ovcharov and Interior Minister Rumen Petkov, who, as BSP member Tatyana Doncheva claimed, represents the interests of SIK (read more about the oligarchy and “Putinisation” of Bulgaria on p38).

The aftermath of all this squabbling, for which Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev gave a sarcastic vote of thanks at the party's post-election assembly, was its poor electoral showing. Only 415,000 people supported the party, 715,000 less than at the 2005 parliamentary elections, albeit when the overall turnout was far higher. But the fact remains that this is only half the number who voted BSP in 1997, a year of rampant hyperinflation when the party's fortunes were at its lowest ebb.

Exit Rumen Ovcharov, a senior member of BSP and (former) economy minister

Exit Rumen Ovcharov, a senior member of BSP and (former) economy minister

The BSP is undergoing a thinly veiled yet palpable internal power struggle. However ambitious and youthful Sergey Stanishev may be, he will find it difficult to regain control. Perhaps the European parliamentary election will have marked the death knell – not only for the rightwing parties that became prominent during the Transition Period – but also for the country's largest left-of-centre party.

But the election's biggest shock, overshadowing even the weak performance of the Socialists, centred on the for Stability and Progress National Movement (NDSV). This had nothing to do with their long-expected poor showing. The party spent nearly two million leva (the maximum allowed for an election campaign by law) but ended up with only one MP, Bilyana Raeva. No, the real surprise arose from an internal scandal, which, as many political analysts pointed out, tarnished the image of the party's hitherto squeaky clean leader, Simeon Saxe-Coburg.

The blow came from his new favourite, former Finance Minister Milen Velchev. He manipulated the results of the party's extraordinary congress, using underhand methods, to place some of his associates in key positions. Congress delegates and members of the NDSV parliamentary group were aghast. Even Simeon Saxe-Coburg himself appeared visibly enraged on television. The politician, always an advocate of modesty and reason, became immersed in a foul plot, albeit one familiar to Bulgarian audiences – a conference where party members bicker furiously about the counting of votes.

The NDSV's imminent demise no longer seems inconceivable particularly in the light of Rumen Ovcharov's and Boyko Borisov's alleged accusations that Saxe-Coburg had only returned to Bulgaria to reclaim his father's (King Boris') property. The NDSV may even be unable to enter the next parliament, a logical culmination to the short-lived party that arose, essentially, as an interest group around a charismatic personality.

Formally, GERB won the election. But it would be implausible to believe that Boyko Borisov's party was really victorious. Sofia's mayor, who has been a darling of the media for years, was clearly dissatisfied with the result. The party gained five European MPs but received only half a million votes, insufficient to provide Borisov with the landslide victory and power he craves at the next general election.

This is why the European People's Party, which welcomed GERB into its fold after the election, should curb its enthusiasm. Boyko Borisov is known for the contradictions and impulsiveness of his public pronouncements. A self-proclaimed right-winger, he nevertheless supports the leftwing president, Georgi Parvanov. He came to power by railing against the “municipal mafia”, but during his two years as Sofia's mayor he has failed to rein in the city's stray dogs, repair the streets' potholes or deal with the conspicuous refuse problem. Besides, Borisov is one of Bulgaria's most controversial politicians, a fact that became particularly clear following Jeff Stein's two articles in the Congressional Quarterly magazine. The first one claimed that Sofia's mayor was linked to organised crime. The second, coinciding with President Bush's visit to Sofia, claimed that North Korea had targeted a Bulgarian bank close to the establishment for a money laundering operation. The bank in question was EIBank, run by Tsvetelina Borislavova, Borisov's girlfriend.

But the election did produce some winners. The Bulgarians have a saying for such situations: “to catch fish in muddy waters”. In this case the fishermen were Dogan's DPS and the far-right nationalist party, Ataka. Dogan's party has always gained from the weakness of other political players. Only this way can it act as a power broker and stay in power without accepting direct responsibility for the government's mistakes. On the other hand, the extreme nationalist Ataka needs a strong DPS because the party's raison d' être depends on claiming that the Turkish party wields too much influence. However, Volen Siderov (Ataka's leader) can't expand his power base beyond his staunch supporters while his party remains in its present – extremist – state.

The strength of the DPS lies in the party's ability to galvanise its voters during elections. When the majority abstains, the minority decides the outcome. Hence Dogan was so pleased with the result. He even allowed himself a confession of sorts in his speech to the NDSV congress: “I like crises because I can manage them,” the DPS leader admitted. How long he will continue to do this is hard to say. But this election showed once again that Dogan's supporters will brave all weathers to vote for him.

The European parliamentary election can be seen as a likely forerunner of October's local elections. Most pollsters think that by the autumn – the exact mid-point of the current coalition's mandate – the political standing of the country's major parties will be clarified. But will this herald an early parliamentary election? And how many of Bulgaria's political parties will survive the crisis? These are questions to which the Bulgarians normally reply with another saying: “Chicks are counted in the autumn”.


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