Bulgaria's Presidential Election May Leave Voters Disappointed
The candidates of the biggest party in the government and the biggest party in opposition, Tsetska Tsacheva and Rumen Radev, will now face each other in a runoff that may not only bring a socialist-backed candidate to the presidency, but also trigger early parliamentary elections.
Both parties will now have to embark on the “adventure” of galvanizing the public and convincing it a battle of epic proportions is to be fought – between “left” and “right”, between “communism” and “anti-communism”, between “Russia” and “the EU and NATO”.
With Rumen Radev leading by a 3.5% margin according to electoral data, it will be a matter of headcount for both GERB, which nominated Tsacheva, and the BSP, which supports the reserve general, to mobilize support among some of the dropped candidates and their parties and thus get endorsements for themselves. The nationalist alliance that backed No 3, Krasimir Karakachanov and the DPS, whose support is thought to have secured more than 6% for a supposedly ineligible candidate, will now vie to become the "kingmakers" of the vote and shift it whichever direction they would prefer.
Or at least this is what they think.
What parties fail to understand is the immense strain this last election has put on voters' minds. Voting is compulsory for the first time in recent history. Election rules were changed in the eleventh hour, leaving some confused as they were heading to the ballot box. A vast number of candidates ran and the surprising rise of newcomers to the political arena, like Veselin Mareshki (who got the fourth-best result) and Radev himself, showed voters are split - but not over EU membership, which the vast majority backs, but over whether the current political class is doing a good job or it would be better to give "outsiders" a chance.
In addition, parties have been behaving as though the vote was parliamentary and presidential, portraying the poll as a parliamentary contest where support from political organizations is of utmost importance.
The trading of barbs between the two candidates
and their "camps" is nevertheless expected to continue throughout this week as a conclusion of a campaign that has so far sent lots of identity messages for candidates and has had little substance when it comes to ideas. Ones accuse the others of being "communist" and "pro-Russian" and are in turn labelled as "authoritarian".
Bulgaria, less developed democratically as it is (especially if compared to the United States), should not be seen as a country having an immensely different campaign from what was seen between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump over the past few months. Smearing and exchanges of attacks are not uncommon – but not being accompanied by fact-checking, they usually snowball into images of parties and candidates that get easily projected over national borders, projecting themselves onto the rest of the EU's view on Bulgaria.
Conservative GERB argues Radev, who advocates a removal of EU sanctions on Russia, would bring Bulgaria back to the times when the country had no certainty about its geopolitical orientation, vacilating between the West and Russia, and ambiguous in its attitude to NATO and the EU. GERB leader and Prime Minister Boyko Borisov on Monday wrote on Facebook that Tsacheva's supporters would be all "opponents of the totalitarian communist left that keeps reincarnating itself in the backroom oligarchic circles pulling the strings of the current left-wing candidate”.
For now, Radev calls on “everyone willing change” to vote for him, not using inflamatory rhetoric – but since being nominated for President, he has been accusing GERB of “merging the party with the state” as in totalitarian times.
Neither argument could fully hold.
While Radev supports a softer tone on Russia, he has never advocated for a breakup with NATO and the EU. On Monday he dubbed Crimea's incorporation into Russia a breach of international law. What is more, both he and Tsacheva have already voiced statements friendly to Russophile voters – and it is too early to say how many of their remarks had purposes beyond electoral tactics.
On GERB's end, the party – well developed as it is, strong as its local structures are, is far from being omnipotent and omnipresent in Bulgaria's political and institutional life. Borisov does indeed have a particular fondness for having his government's work covered by the media and behaving like a shepherd with the Bulgarian flock; but the past two years have been time of painstaking compromises on key issues with two-and-a-half coalition partners, one of them (ABV) having quit and the half (the Patriotic Front) pretending not to be apartner. He has had to serve too many masters abroad, constantly engaged in negotiations with the EU, Russia and Turkey on numerous issues.
Both candidates have now gone too far in labeling but have stopped short of attending debates with others. This week will be their last change to fix their mistakes. The conflict between "young" and "old", university graduates and people with a lower degree of education has been artificially fuelled throughout the campaign, but looking at the voter profiles revealed by pollsters, one cannot help thinking that no single group (except for the vast majority of Bulgarian Turks) has voted overwhelmingly for one of the candidates, despite the clich? that young and educated Bulgarians, millennials included, vote right of center while the elderly prefer casting ballots to for candidates tied to left-wing politics.
As of the moment, judging from public attitudes,
their race cannot be called, analysts say.
Political expert Antoniy Galabov on Monday told the Bulgarian National Radio that a results could turn the table on Tsacheva in the second round, the first one being by and large a protest vote against party agreements on next election and a the lack of serious policy making and policy proposals. In an interview with Focus Radio, he said the country would plunge into a political crisis if she loses, triggering Borisov's resignation, but warned a runoff win for Tsacheva did not mean and end to turbulence in Bulgaria's political life.
Parvan Simeonov, CEO of Gallup International, has also told Focus that uncertainty looms about support from presidential candidates who failed for either Tsacheva or Radev. While projecting a victory for Radev, he added much of the nationalist vote could now spill over to him after the United Patriots' candidate Krasimir Karakachanov came third. Supporters of the Reformist Bloc, on the other hand, would not feel "inspired" to back Tsacheva either, he said.
Others warn that while GERB spares no effort to artificially revive the “communism vs anti-communism” divide to unite more people around a common enemy, the BSP should be wary of counting support for Radev as a success.
Ivo Hristov, a political scientist sharing rather left-of-center views, warned in an interview with the public broadcaster that the BSP against counting votes for Radev as its own votes as such a statement would be "detached from reality". "[Radev's result] does not solve the enormous, fundamental problems for the BSP which are not long gone at all. The BSP is yet to prove it is a pro-Bulgarian, socialist party and not a representative of the oligarchic circles that brought us where we are."
Never in Bulgaria's recent history has a president been elected in the first round,
as no single candidate has garnered more than 50% of the vote. However, never before these elections had the two leading candidates failed to get less than 50% jointly.
Their result, in an election that was made compulsory (albeit dispersed among a big number of candidates) indicates Bulgarians are not polarized along artificial cleavages, but disappointed with everyone who has had a presence in power.
For a candidate to win, he or she should hopefully address people's concerns, instead of counting on endorsements from other candidates portraying their opponent as the worst possible choice. As most first-round candidates were using electoral tactics alone and not trying to soothe voters themselves reaching out to all Bulgarians, exit poll delivered to some of them a huge surprise.
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