A file photo of a meeting that brought together all Bulgarian presidents in 2012, right to left: Zhelyu Zhelev (1990-1997), Petar Stoyanov (1997-2002), Georgi Parvanov (2002-2012), and incumbent Rosen Plevneliev (2012-2016). BGNES
Bulgaria is by no means a presidential republic, but a parliamentary one, and yet the presidential elections kick up a great deal of fuss.
With the vote coming on November 06, it is worth explaining why.
The President's role in Bulgaria should not be underestimated - to the regret of Tsvetan Tsvetanov, a former Interior Minister who dubbed the office a matter of “protocol” and asked reporters rhetorically: “Tell me what depends on the President.”
Tsvetanov, who is now deputy to Prime Minister Boyko Borisov as leader of the main ruling GERB party, deserves a very simple answer to this question: the President has a lot on their plate.
At a first glance, the head of state's functions look all but ceremonial. The Constitution reads that he or she "shall embody the unity of the nation and shall represent the Republic of Bulgaria in international relations."
These functions come from the fact that presidents are
directly elected by the people.
Unlike Greece, Hungary or Germany, the political leadership has nothing to do with choosing the new president – it can only nominate or endorse a candidate, but the final decision lies with the people. This gives him a strong and authoritative voice, but also legitimacy to his stances on current affairs.
But the office also gives some
two tools that can make a difference in lawmaking.
The head of state's veto powers and the competence to refer sections of legislation to the Constitutional Court give anyone holding the office powerful levers on the government and parliament.
This year , incumbent Rosen Plevneliev sent back to Parliament's floor proposed changes to election rules, with lawmakers overriding his veto but amending several sections due to pressure from him and civil society members.
He also sent to Bulgaria's top court a six-point referendum on the political system, which was subsequently reduced to three questions by the constitutional judges.
The latter are not immune to the President's actions either. Plevneliev refused to attend the swearing-in ceremony of a constitutional judge Veneta Markovska over reports tarnishing her reputation and thus thwarted her appointment to the office.
When a government falls, all eyes are on the President.
A fourth of Bulgaria's governments so far have been appointed as caretaker administrations, following crises and resignations – and this task is always in the President's hands. Between March 2013 and August 2014, Bulgaria's incumbent Plevneliev had to compose two interim cabinets designed to keep institutions afloat and pave the way for the next elections.
The President acts like Bulgaria's business card abroad.
Traditionally, heads of state have helped bring in businesses from abroad and kick off big projects, but have also helped Bulgaria pursue better ties with some of the big players, be these the United States or Russia (Plevneliev preferring Washington while his predecessor Parvanov being closer to Moscow). While a President's stances on geopolitics sometimes fuel tensions with the executive, their attitude and strategic tilt often bear fruit. For example, Plevnliev has more than once incited negotiations with a number of Western businesses while paying or receiving visits, while Parvanov helped kickstart large-scale energy projects with Russia, all of them abandoned now but with wide-reaching consequences for Bulgaria.
Diplomatic efforts of the head of state can have an impact beyond Bulgaria's borders. The first post-communist President (1990-1997), late Zhelyu Zhelev, talked his Russian counterpart Yeltsin into recognizing Macedonia's independence (after Bulgaria was the first country to take the step) and claimed to have played the same role on Turkey.
Last but not least,
Presidents may democratize governance.
Both Plevneliev and Parvanov, leaving their legacy aside, have been able to set themselves free of the parties that nominated them to the office, even if Plevneliev did that more successfully, sometimes adding to the public debate a voice much different to the government or the opposition.
A head of state can also call in consultations among political parties, helping them smooth out their differences. He or she can also show Bulgaria the way.
As the country had plunged into a political and financial crisis back in the mid 1990s, it was Petar Stoyanov, the 3rd head of state, who found a way out of the turmoil and placed Bulgaria on the track to EU and NATO membership. He was also a strong advocate for the currency board, a financial arrangement under which the Bulgarian lev (BGN) is pegged to the euro (or the Deutsche Mark before the single currency was introduced), with Steve Hanke, considered the board's "father", having been his financial adviser between 1995 and 1997.
What a President would do with all of these powers when elected is quite another thing.