*FT: Bulgarian PM Stays Popular amid Public Scepticism
By Tony Barber
With six months to go before Bulgaria's next parliamentary elections, the ruling centre-right Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (Gerb) appears in a commanding position over the Socialist opposition and newer, more marginal parties.
But opinion surveys reveal widespread public disillusionment with all political parties, and the re-election of Gerb would not banish doubts about the stability of Bulgarian politics. "It's typical of many countries these days not to trust political parties, but in Bulgaria it extends to a wide range of state institutions, including the judiciary," says Daniel Smilov, a political scientist at the Centre for Liberal Strategies, a Sofia-based think-tank. "This is a worrying sign."
Gerb, led by Boyko Borisov, the prime minister who is a former bodyguard and police chief, swept to victory in the 2009 elections with almost 40 per cent of the vote, taking 117 seats in the 240-member legislature. The Bulgarian Socialist party, which had ruled since 2005, was thereby consigned to the margins. If Gerb repeats its success, it will mark the first time in Bulgaria's post-communist history that a government has won re-election. To judge from the latest polls, support for Gerb lies somewhere between 20-30 per cent, a big decline from 2009. But Mr Borisov's popularity is higher than that of his party, indicating that his forceful character and adept cultivation of media image hold the key to Gerb's re-election prospects.
Mr Borisov draws strength from Bulgaria’s success in having battled its way through Europe’s economic recession and debt crisis without experiencing the turbulence that has struck neighbours such as Greece and Serbia. Mr Borisov has also benefited from a spell of infighting in the Socialist party in which Sergei Stanishev, a former premier, eventually beat off a challenge for the leadership from Georgi Parvanov, a former two-term head of state. “The Socialists are connected in the public mind with an era of corruption when they were in government,” says a Bulgarian political consultant. “The Socialists are not even a paper tiger any more. They are a paper bunny.”
Mr Borisov’s mastery of the political scene was underlined in October 2011 when Rosen Plevneliev, a Gerb candidate, won Bulgaria’s presidential election, replacing Mr Parvanov. Lying second in recent opinion polls are the Socialists, with 16.1 to 17.5 per cent. Trailing them, with less than 10 per cent, are two smaller parties – Bulgaria for Citizens, led by Meglena Kuneva, a former member of the European Commission, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a party that is supported mainly by Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks and has formed part of previous coalition governments.
All polls have indicated declining support for the ultranationalist Ataka party, which faces a struggle to cross the threshold of 4 per cent of the vote required to win seats in the legislature. In this respect Bulgaria seems to be avoiding the experience of Greece, where the far-right Golden Dawn party won 7 per cent of the vote and 18 seats in last June’s election.
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