The Only Question Mark after Bulgaria's Local Elections

Novinite Insider » OPINIONS | Author: Angel Petrov |November 4, 2015, Wednesday // 11:03
Bulgaria: The Only Question Mark after Bulgaria's Local Elections PM Boyko Borisov (L) has boasted about his GERB party's huge electoral success. The landslide victory, however, leaves room for some questions. Photo by BGNES

As we noted a week before the local elections held in Bulgaria on October 25 and November 1, Novinite wasn't really committed to in-depth coverage of the campaign and that was done on purpose. No substantial debate, no real battles of either personalities or ideas, no active commitment to winning citizens' hearts and minds.

To single out what should be remembered after the two rounds of the elections is, however, something we can do.

Of the five developments here, four were quite expected. One was not.

1. Dull campaigning

Politicians themselves did their best to make sure whoever is in office has no importance. The initial idea was to make a "list" of the most ridiculous visual moments - but even this list turned out to be short and can be put on display in between paragraphs.

Ventsi Mitsov, a rock star who ran in the elections and made it into the Sofia City Council, is seen here mocking politicians' notorious appetite for both eating meatballs and sharing them with potential voters.

2. GERB's success

Bulgaria's main ruling party, and also the biggest electoral force with more MPs than the two largest opposition parties combined, has now consolidated its grip on the country. In three-quarters of all regional centers - the 28 "key cities" of Bulgaria - a GERB candidate has won, ousting even mayors with several terms in office behind them.

Even leaving opposition allegations of vote buying and manipulation aside, GERB's result is not surprising: it was the only party which engaged in a nationwide (albeit dull) campaign, and also the only one able to spend as much on campaigning as it wants to. It focused on the need to continue absorbing EU funding for new projects - a strategy that has been increasingly used over the years to attract voters and which, with money still flowing in, has proved successful regardless of well-founded criticism.

With mayoral seats won in three regional centers by right-wing Reformist Bloc, the junior partner in the coalition government, PM Boyko Borisov even tried to hint that some of RB's gains were actually a "gift" from his party. In Pleven, where the bloc won, Borisov said GERB had done little to secure its own candidate (then mayor)'s victory, adding he wouldn't have voted for him if he could cast a ballot.

Election posters like the one above circulated throughout social media, with people discussing mostly the appearance of  candidates.

3. Socialists' failure

If the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) knew it had received a huge blow back in May 2014, after EU Parliament elections, and then admitted to hitting rock bottom in November of the same year in a general poll, local elections are an even darker moment in the party's history.

Overwhelmed by its own internal problems, the BSP has been finding it difficult to act assertively and proactively and to look around for a new electorate after part of its former supporters was drained by ABV, a splinter-off party of President (2002-2012) and former BSP leader Georgi Parvanov.

Timidly underlining its electoral "success" in 60 smaller municipalities across the country, the BSP's leadership also admits that, for the first time in 25 years (after it was "rebranded" from being a "communist" to a "socialist" party) it didn't score a victory in a single regional center. None of the 28 regional centers will be run by a socialist mayor.

Even traditional "strongholds" of the BSP, where it has polled well for two-and-a-half decades, have apparently ceased to exist. Chairman Mihail Mikov is not intending to resign for the moment, but part of the party's leadership did so, in pursuit of an explanation.

4. Vote-buying allegations

As it happens every year with elections coming, bigger TV stations run reports (some of them "undercover") of vote-buying practices, with virtually no bigger party refraining from the malpractice. After voting ends, political parties start to echo the allegations more openly, without running the risk of falling victim to a "smearing campaign" - no-one needs it now that the vote is over.

However, neither TV reports nor politicians' allegations seem to spark outrage from the public or to bring about a change.

These presents which potential voters received at a campaign event in Sliven, Southern Bulgaria, are not tantamount to vote buying, but have certainly added a new meaning to the expression "vote with one's feet".

5. The party that is strangely absent

For many years, in many elections, the liberal Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) has been known for two key features. Firstly, it has pointed out, as its main goal, to stand up for the interests of minorities (despite not being officially an "ethnic" party, otherwise it would have been banned under the Constitution) - the right to campaigning in one's mother tongue is a good example. Secondly, it has had a stable electorate, one often described by critics as "disciplined" that has traditionally voted in its favour. In a number of cities - which includes regional centers and towns - in Southern Bulgaria, but also in the north-east, where compact groups of ethnic Turks and, increasingly, ethnic Roma voters have either brought it victory or substantial gains, the DPS has now polled worse than it ever did in the past 15 years.

GERB managed to defeat the DPS in all bigger towns and cities but Kardzhali, an unprecedented event the DPS's leader, Lyutvi Mestan, sought to explain at a press conference on Monday, a day after the run-off vote.

"Results in the traditional regions [ones where citizens vote DPS] have debunked the myth of a DPS voter who is "tied down" [to the party]," Mestan said. He hailed the DPS's electorate, often made up of inhabitants of remote areas, often with lower professional or educational status, as "demanding" and "exigent", thus suggesting GERB might have been more appealing and might have offered more to voters - to those very same voters for whose well-being and improvement of livelihoods (most of them are low-income) DPS says it has been struggling for years.

While praising the independent choice of "its" voters, Mestan was quick to downplay GERB's numerous victories by simply reading numbers on a sheet of paper: numbers suggesting that even if the DPS wasn't Bulgaria's second-biggest political force already, it would have "overtaken" on the socialist party officially hadn't legal restrictions (such as a 6-month settlement period for voters) been in place in local elections this year. These restrictions, Mestan argued, were introduced to "harm" the DPS, and yet it can boast about having a mayor in one in every four inhabited place in Bulgaria (be it a village, town or city) and thousands of municipal councilors...

... and so on and so on. The sheer thought of the DPS becoming "the second political party in Bulgaria" has been described as a "taboo" in the country for many years, despite some people suggesting it already happened; so Mestan was careful only to play on other parties' nerves without stating anything explicitly.

Whether the DPS really lost any influence or agreed to losing any influence remains a mystery that time will maybe solve.


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Tags: Boyko Borisov, Lyutvi Mestan, GERB, BSP, DPS, Reformist Bloc, ABV, Georgi Parvanov, local elections
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