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Bulgaria’­s June 2005 Elections: Long Live the King?

March 10, 2005

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By Vassia Gueorguieva

The last parliamentary and presidential elections in Bulgaria surprised the world. In the summer of 2001, Bulgarians elected the exiled monarch Simeon II Saxe-Coburg Gotha to the Prime Ministerial post. Later, voters chose Georgi Parvanov, leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, over the incumbent President Stoyanov, who ran for re-election.

Will new surprises follow in the June 25 elections?Saxe-Coburg Gotha spent most of his life in Spain after being exiled from Bulgaria with the advent of the Communist regime in Bulgaria. Today, despite his Prime Ministerial post, he is often referred to by the public and the national media as “the king.”

Saxe-Coburg Gotha’s political platform when he stepped into office included and ambitious program to improve the economic situation in Bulgaria and attract foreign investments within 800 days of the beginning of his mandate. After his electoral victory, one of the most circulated Bulgarian newspapers, “24 Hours,” began publishing a countdown of the days on its front page. This marked the beginning of the decline in the party’s popularity, which was highest during the 2001 electoral cycle.

Today’s political rating of Saxe-Coburg Gotha’s party, the National Movement “Simeon II” (NDSV), has fallen below its 2001 level. Alpha Research reports that about 51% of the Bulgarian electorate would still have voted for him in August, 2001. However, a steep decline was observed in December that same year, as only 22% of Bulgarians would still have voted for him. In January 2005, only 13% reported they would cast their ballot for NDSV.

Doubts about the ability of NDSV to win a second mandate in 2005 have been persistent. The municipal elections of October 2003 were won by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which received 33% of the vote. It was followed by the Union of Democratic Forces, which won 21%. NDSV won only 10% of the vote. Also, February proved to be a month marked by challenges to the party’s unity and survival. Parliamentary Speaker Ognian Gerjikov, a member of the NDSV, was relieved of his duties after a ballot proposed by the opposition, which accused him of having turned the Parliament into an extension of the executive power.

Days later, Saxe-Coburg Gotha’s government faced a vote of no confidence, which it survived after striking a deal with one of the smaller parties, New Time. This was the sixth no confidence motion the government survived since it came to power. Cabinet changes followed after the motion, but they also raised discontent among the public. While the parties have not yet officially started the election campaign, the vote of no confidence was generally perceived as an attempt to discredit and destabilize the ruling NDSV and call for early elections.

One of the opposition parties, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), which was defeated by Prime Minister Saxe-Coburg Gotha in the 2001 elections by 42.7% to 18.2%, has began preparing for the parliamentary race by concluding a pact with the rest of the parties from the political right to not attack each other in the upcoming elections. This is in stark contrast with the past trends of balkanization of the existing political parties, which was more a response to personal divergences among politicians within them, than as a response to the need to represent a particular constituency.

However, UDF is unlikely to be a serious competitor in the June elections since its public rating has also been steadily declining since 2001. Alpha Research opinion polls report that in January 2005, only 6.6% would vote for them in parliamentary elections.

Among the major political parties, for the first time since the transition to democracy, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) is the leading political force in Bulgaria and commands strong popular support. While only 10% would have voted for it in August 2001, about 22% would have done so in January 2005. Domestic political analysts predict BSP’s victory in the June 2005 elections.

Sociologists from ASSA-M explain that BSP has managed to win more support from the young and the unemployed. These two groups have been traditionally difficult to tap by this party since most of its supporters have been the elderly population. The explanation the sociologists provide for the rise of popularity of BSP in comparison with the other political forces is not that much on what BSP has done, but rather on what it has not done, as it has been relatively sheltered from scandals. During its late February 2005 plenary session over the party’s political strategy until 2015, BSP boldly set as one of its goals the victory of the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Besides domestic analysts’ forecasts of an electoral victory for BSP, foreign observers also foresee a victory for the party. The Economist Intelligence Unit forecasts a victory for BSP in the context of a coalition with the predominantly ethnic Turkish party Movement for Rights and Freedoms.

The winner in the elections will probably lead Bulgaria into European Union (EU) membership in 2007, as the country is scheduled to sign its Accession Treaty with the EU on April 25th. Bulgaria already became a member of NATO in 2004 and most probably there will not be major shifts in its foreign policy of further European integration if BSP marks a victory in the elections. The party has been getting closer to the image of modern left parties in the rest of Europe.

The most pronounced changes might be in terms of Bulgaria’s involvement in Iraq, as BSP vowed to pull out the country’s contingent from Iraq if it won the 2005 elections. Thus, a change in government will be more likely to mark changes in domestic policies, such as whether to keep the currency board after 2007, which BSP might remove if it came to power.

Yet, despite the predictions, NDSV might still be able to change the outcome of the elections in its favor. It already surprised analysts in the 2001 election and it might very well do so again in 2005. Bulgaria might still spend 4 more years with its former monarch as head of the executive. The electoral options are set: Simeon or Socialist?

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Vassia Gueorguieva is a Ph.D. Candidate at American University, Washington DC. She has worked for the Bulgarian Parliament and in 2001 took part in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Election Observation Mission to Bulgaria.

 

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