As Bulgarians gear up for a general election on Sunday (4 April), the crucial issue – or risk, for some – is whether Boyko Borissov, who has run the poorest EU country with small interruptions since 2009, will get another mandate.
During the whole of last summer, the streets of Sofia and other big cities were blocked by protesters demanding the resignation of Borissov and the Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, seen as Borissov’s hand-picked gatekeeper of a corrupt status quo.
At that time, it looked like Borissov was finished, especially after leaked photos showed how the prime minister keeps bundles of 500-euro notes and gold ingots in his bedroom drawer.
But those who thought Borissov was done were naïve. He has a natural instinct for survival and for communication. He doesn’t seek to convince everyone – just to charm enough people to keep him in power.
So Borissov set out in his SUV across the country, his personal PR aide posting live on Facebook footage of his driving skills and his meetings with workers building highways or the Balkan Stream gas pipeline.
Borissov no longer meets the press. He doesn’t need to. He has his own media on Facebook.
When he meets with people, Borissov is generous and promises money. He also paid an extra 50 leva (€25) per month to each pensioner – up until the elections. For impoverished pensioners €25 is a lot of money. Is this vote-buying? Your opinion is as good as ours.
Borissov was successful in creating a state which looks like Bulgaria under the leadership of communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, whose last bodyguard Borissov happened to be.
This means creating an elite of one million people the leader controls. Before, these were Communist party members, who ran the country as administrators. Today, it’s the civil servants. They may or may not be members of Borissov’s GERB party, but they know that voting GERB is a guarantee they will keep their jobs.
So much for Borissov. A few words about the opposition.
The main opposition force, the socialists (BSP), are running in second place in opinion polls. But Borissov’s GERB and the BSP have the same problem: they have their own fans, roughly 20% of the electorate each, but both find it difficult to gather partners to form a ruling coalition.
More interesting parts of the political spectrum are the political forces expected to enter Parliament for the first time. All of them gained strength during the protests, although they were unable to stand as a unified force against Borissov.
Slavi Trifonov is a TV showman. His force is likely to be No.3 in the elections. Some compare him to Beppe Grillo in Italy. He keeps his cards close to his chest.
Among the expected first-timers in Parliament, Democratic Bulgaria is probably the second-largest force.
They represent the traditional centre-right, beside which Borissov’s GERB (also EPP-affiliated) look like populist usurpers. Democratic Bulgaria appears to be the most reformist force in Bulgaria. Its central figure, Hristo Ivanov, a fighter for judicial reform, is a familiar face in Brussels.
“Stand Up Bulgaria – Mafia out!” is also likely to get its first seats in parliament. This centre-left party is recognizable thanks to the charismatic figure of Maya Manolova, a former national ombudsman.
All three new parties reject the option of a coalition with GERB. But Manolova’s party doesn’t rule out a coalition with BSP.
Should Borissov win (as polls predict) and then fail to form a coalition, the runner-up (BSP) will try its luck. If BSP fails, the president will entrust forming a government to a party of his choice. But even then, success is not guaranteed.
One thing is certain: the greater the turnout, the fairer the elections will be.
In case these elections fail to produce a government, a new parliamentary ballot is likely to coincide with the presidential elections in autumn, where the popular incumbent, Rumen Radev, will seek a second term.
With Radev being an outspoken opponent of Borissov, these elections would be a clash of titans. Sunday’s poll is probably a dress rehearsal.
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