On Sunday, November 6th, Bulgaria will hold its presidential elections. A record number of 24 candidate couples submitted their registration papers, thus giving Bulgarians a wide variety of candidates to choose from. Among them are a former air force general, ministers, including a prime minister, members of parliament, a pharmaceutical mogul, a showman and even a psychic. The registration of numerous candidates also serves another purpose: it disperses the vote, thus reducing the ability of the main candidates to dominate the election.
The Main Candidates
According to a recent poll, there are five candidates with significant chances for success: Tsetska Tsacheva, chair of the Bulgarian National Assembly from the right wing Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party, has 29.3% of the vote; General Rumen Radev, a former commander of the Bulgarian Air Force who is supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), has 21.4% of the vote; Krassimir Karakachanov, leader of the nationalistic party VMRO, who was nominated by a coalition of nationalistic and Eurosceptic parties has 8.7% of the vote; Ivailo Kalfin, a former foreign minister and vice prime minister from the left wing Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV) party has 6.8% of the vote; and Traicho Traikov, the former minister of economy from the Reformist Block (RB), a predominantly right wing coalition of parties, has 5% of the vote.
Overall, the debates have thus far been rather anaemic and unintriguing. Most of the candidates avoid going into detail about their policy plans or discussing problematic political issues regarding internal affairs in depth, such as judiciary, corruption and organised crime. The slow progress in the aforementioned sectors led to the introduction of the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) by the European Commission (EC). Moreover, Bulgaria had to accept the CVM in order to join the EU in 2007. CVM’s main goal is to track the country’s progress in the field of judiciary, anti-corruption and crime fighting. Ten years later, however, Bulgaria’s unsatisfactory results convinced the EC not only to prolong the CVM, but to even strengthen it with a EC inspection of Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office.
One area of the election in which more nuanced positions have appeared is in foreign affairs, more specifically, in the attitude towards Russia and the sanctions that the West has imposed on the Kremlin after the annexation of Crimea.
The two left wing candidates, General Radev and Mr. Kalfin, as well as the representative of the Eurosceptic coalition, Mr. Karakachanov, are outspoken supporters of revising the sanctions and even lifting them altogether. The pro-Russian stance of these candidates does not, however, come as a surprise. During communism, Bulgaria was the closest satellite of the USSR. Bulgarian communists and totalitarian secret services cooperated closely with their Soviet counterparts, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSS) and the KGB. All three candidates are related to the former communist regime; BSP is the descendant of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) and ABV, which has nominated Mr. Kalfin, was part of the BSP. Mr. Krakachanov, on the other hand, was an agent of Bulgaria’s notorious Darzavna Sigurnsot (State Security).
In contrast, Mrs. Tsacheva, who was also member of the BCP once, presents a more balanced position on the matter. In a recent interview, Mrs. Tsacheva stated that the EU sanctions against Russia should be revised, but that this does not mean that they should be abolished. According to Mrs. Tsacheva, the sanctions are the result of a common EU decision and Bulgaria, as an EU member, is part of this decision. This ambiguous wording, though carefully selected, aims to attract part of the left wing voters while simultaneously preventing a loss of GERB supporters.
The other candidate from the right wing side of the spectrum, Mr. Traikov, is quite adamant about Russia. Mr. Traikov harshly criticised the stance of his opponents, accusing them of posing a danger to Bulgaria’s national security and reiterating that Bulgaria is free to choose its foreign policy as an independent and sovereign state.
It is expected that at least one of the two key provisions for electing a president in the first tour will not be met. In order for a candidate to be elected in the first round he or she must receive more than 50% of the valid ballots, and 50% of Bulgarians who are eligible to vote must do so. If one or both of these conditions are not fulfilled, then there is a runoff, which takes place exactly one week after the first tour.
The second round is between only the two candidates who have received the most votes in the first tour. There is a high probability that those candidates will be Mrs. Tsacheva and General Radev. At present, Mrs. Tsacheva is 8% ahead of General Radev in the polls, but this difference might not be enough for her to secure a victory in the case of a runoff. Many experts believe that Mrs. Tsacheva cannot rely on higher support outside her circle of staunch GERB sympathisers, meanwhile, General Radev has the potential to attract the votes of other left wing formations, thus shifting the balance in his favour.
There is, however, one important detail that has the potential to impact the election significantly. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) party is, in practice, a Turkish minority political party that has a disciplined and compact electorate. In the past, the party successfully mobilised between 400,000 and 600,000 voters out of Bulgaria’s population of roughly 7 million people, depending on the elections. Parliamentary elections tend to muster greater support, suggesting that the higher the stakes of an election, the greater the support.
Presently, the MRF has nominated their own candidate: Mr. Plamen Oresharski, a former finance minister who also served as a prime minister in the notorious Bulgarian cabinet between May 2013 and July 2014. At the time, the Oresharski government had made a plethora of controversial appointments. The appointment of Mr. Deian Peevski, a media mogul, as the director of the State Agency for National Security (SANS) was arguably one of the most bizarre. Mr. Peevski’s appointment triggered mass protests and public discontent that eventually led to the resignation of the cabinet and to early elections in the autumn of 2014.
The idea behind Mr. Oresharski’s nomination is simple: the MRF would like to measure its electoral support in order to trade it during the potential runoff. This has been the tactic of the party in the past 25 years. It uses its compact vote to support different presidential candidates and/or political parties, which has helped the MRF to become an unavoidable factor in Bulgarian politics. It is worthwhile to mention that, despite its predominantly Turkish profile, the MRF party is actually quite close to the Kremlin. For instance, Ahmed Dogan, who is the founder and informal leader of the MRF party used to be an agent of the secret services during the communist period. Since the dawn of Bulgaria’s democracy in the early 1990s, Dogan has been using his political power to steer Bulgaria back into the Russian orbit of influence. For instance, he has supported the involvement of Bulgaria in Russian-led energy projects, such as South Stream and the building of a second Nuclear Power Plant near the Bulgarian city of Belene. In this respect, there is a high chance that the MRF may support General Radev at the eventual runoff, thus securing the victory of a pro-Russian president.
Of course, it remains to be seen what the voting power of the MRF party will be, as well as whether or not they will choose to support any of the candidates in the second round, assuming such a round occurs. Regardless of how this election turns out, the final result will be determined by the Bulgarian citizens. It is only a matter of time until the results of those who show up to the polling stations and vote are revealed.
Aleko is the Ambassador of the European Student Think Tank to Bulgaria. He has studied European Studies and Political Science at the University of National and World Economy-Sofia, Bonn University and the Central European University in Budapest. He has gained work experience at the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, the European Institute-Sofia and the Office of the President of the Republic of Bulgaria. Aleko’s fields of interests include EU Foreign and Security Policy, EU (Dis)integration processes, EU enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy with focus on the Eastern Partnership (EaP).