Election The Bulgarian Presidential Elections of 2011: Reflections on Process and Outcome

On 23 October 2011 a presidential election was held in Bulgaria, together with the country’s municipal elections, with a run-off on 30 October 2011. This comment explore the way that these elections were conducted, the political platforms of the three main contestants, and finally assess their outcome for the future politics of Bulgaria.

Published on balticworlds.com on November 16, 2011

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On 23 October 2011 a presidential election was held in Bulgaria, together with the country’s municipal elections, with a run-off on 30 October 2011. Eighteen presidential candidates – nominees from the country’s major political parties as well as independent candidates – were officially registered and took part in the first round. Rosen Plevneliev, the presidential candidate supported by the ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria party and Ivaylo Kalfin, the presidential nominee of the Bulgarian Socialist Party made it to the second round. Rosen Plevneliev, together with his vice-presidential running mate, Margarita Popova, won the run-off, receiving 52.58% of the popular vote against the 47.42% of their opponent, Ivaylo Kalfin and his vice presidential candidate, Stefan Danailov. This result means that Rosen Plevneliev and Margarita Popova will succeed Georgi Parvanov and Angel Marin in the presidency and vice presidency of the Republic respectively as of  the 23rd of the coming January and will be in office for the next five years. This paper will explore the way that these elections were conducted, the political platforms of the three main contestants, and finally assess their outcome for the future politics of Bulgaria.

Bulgaria’s Political System and the President of the Republic

Bulgaria’s political system is a parliamentary democracy, in which the prime minister occupies the most powerful executive position, but with the president of the Republic holding some significant powers: besides leading the country’s armed forces, the president can veto legislation and sign treaties, and name ambassadors as well as the heads of the country’s intelligence and security services. These powers, along with the fact that he is elected by universal suffrage, render the presidency an important political institution whose role extends far beyond that of a political figurehead, as is the case with heads of state elsewhere. Indeed, there have been cases in Bulgaria’s post-Cold War history in which presidents claimed the right to have a say and to influence the politics of the country. On some occasions this claim took the form of an open conflict with the country’s elected government, leading to political crisis. For example, in November 1995 the then Socialist government of Zhan Videnov decided to recall six ambassadors who happened to be personal friends of the then president, Zheliu Zhelev. The president refused to ratify the government’s decision and a conflict arose over the issue, which was only resolved by the government agreeing to some of Zhelev’s advisers being made foreign diplomats.

Almost four years earlier, on 15 January 1992, President Zheliu Zhelev had, through his friend Stefan Trafov (deputy prime minister), persuaded the Bulgarian prime minister, Filip Dimitrov, to recognize the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) under its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia. The decision was taken without consulting the minister of Foreign Affairs, Stoian Ganev, who was on an official tour of Europe. Ganev made a public statement, holding the president and the prime minister responsible for the decision. An institutional crisis broke out, which was soon resolved by concessions and compromises on both sides. In February 2003 an open disagreement occurred between the government and the president of the Republic over the Iraqi crisis. The US government, while preparing to invade Iraq and overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein, asked the Bulgarian government to open the country’s airspace and allow the temporary presence of US troops and equipment on Bulgarian territory. The president and the government received the request differently. On the one hand, the president maintained that parliament and not the government was constitutionally responsible for deciding on the issue. On the other hand, the government argued that this decision should be its responsibility and not that of parliament. The disagreement was resolved by the constitutional court, which decided that the government was in the right.

Observer Missions and the Electoral Process

Observer missions, such as that of the OSCE office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), made an overall positive assessment of the country’s presidential and municipal elections. However, they noted that, while the election was conducted in a generally orderly and peaceful way, there remained concerns about a lack of equal access to the media and blurred distinctions between newspaper editorials and political advertisements. In addition, on some occasions vote-buying allegations undermined confidence in the election process. Specific mention was made of ethnic minorities, particularly the Roma, as being susceptible to vote-buying and pressure. The use of minority languages in campaigns was often restricted, with some candidates making inflammatory statements against minorities. For example, during the electoral campaign following the first round of elections on 23 October 2011, Rosen Plevneliev, the presidential candidate supported by the ruling party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, attacked the political support which the leader of the ethnic-Turkish-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms offered to his political opponent, Ivaylo Kalfin, the candidate supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party. In an attempt to brush off the attack, Kalfin claimed that the Roma would vote for him too, but instead of using the politically correct term ‘Roma’ to refer to this ethnic group, Kalfin made a political gaff by using the politically incorrect term ‘Tsigani’, an act which caused political reactions among Bulgarian citizens and members of the Bulgarian political class as well as the Roma ethnic group.

The Katounitsa Incident and its Effect on the Election

Kalfin’s reference to the Roma was related to the Katounitsa incident, which was quite influential in the presidential elections of 2011. On 23 September 2011 in the village of Katounitsa (south-east Bulgaria), Angel Petrov, a 19-year-old man, was run over and killed by a van driven by a man allegedly linked to controversial Roma businessman Kiril Rashkov – widely known as ‘Tsar Kiro’. Rashkov was convicted several times in the communist era of illegal foreign exchange and gold transactions and had been accused in the past of allegedly being a kingpin of drug trafficking in Bulgaria. The driver of the van, which ran over and killed Petrov, was subsequently arrested by police, but tensions between ethnic Bulgarians and Roma ran high and led to an arson attack on Rashkov’s properties by an anti-Roma group, a series of anti-Roma marches in several Bulgarian cities and a second death, that of 16-year-old Pavel, who had a history of heart disease and collapsed during the protest and later died in hospital.

The Katounitsa incident, almost a month before the elections, shocked Bulgarian society and had an impact on the Presidential campaign. It led the ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria party to distance itself from the extreme-right National Union Attack party, which had offered political support to the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria government of Boiko Borissov. This was because the leader of the National Union Attack party and their nominee in the October 2011 presidential election, Volen Siderov, often questioned in public the role of NGOs, ethnic minorities and more specifically of the Roma in the political life of the country, using extreme and xenophobic political rhetoric which increased ethnic tensions instead of pouring oil on troubled waters.

As a result of all this, a significant number who had voted in the presidential election of October 2006 for Volen Siderov now left his camp and voted for moderate independent candidates such as Meglena Kuneva or presidential candidates supported by moderate political parties, including the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria and the Bulgarian Socialist Party. In the presidential election of October 2011, Volen Siderov won 3.64 % of votes and was excluded from the second round, while in that of October 2006 he came second in the first round, winning 21.5% of the vote, and reached the second round, where he competed with the then president of the Republic, Georgi Parvanov. Siderov finally finished second in 2006, receiving 24.1% of the vote, with Georgi Parvanov coming first with76% and renewing his tenure in office for a second and final term (according to the Bulgarian constitution the same person cannot renew his tenure in the office of the presidency for a third term). Similar to Volen Siderov’s was the fate of presidential candidates supported by political parties with a nationalist political agenda, such as the leader of the IMRO-Bulgarian National Movement, Krasimir Karakachanov, and his running mate for the vice presidency, Daniela Dimitrova. In the first round of the presidential election on 23 October, Karakachanov received 0.99% of the vote and was excluded from the second round.

Candidates’ Profiles, Programmes and Style of Political Debate

The political debate during the electoral period, this was conducted in general election terms. That is, the political platforms were driven by the candidates’ attempts to respond to the parliamentary party politics of the day and to increase the chances of the political parties they represented of consolidating or increasing their power and weakening the influence of competing political parties. These platforms had little of a manifesto to explain the candidate’s vision or plan if elected president. For example, Rosen Plevneliev was a regional development minister in the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria government of Boiko Borissov before he was nominated as the party’s presidential candidate. The nomination itself was not an easy process, since for most of the summer of 2011 there was speculation that Boiko Borissov himself might run for the presidency. The decision to nominate Plevneliev was taken as result of the candidate’s background and appeal to the Bulgarian public. He pushed through several large-scale infrastructure projects as regional minister and his electoral team emphasized, with a view to targeting undecided voters, the fact that he was a self-made businessman.

Plevneliev pledged to work with the government to reduce the deficit and pursue business-friendly policies – both tasks which are constitutionally regarded as the responsibility of the government and not of the presidency. He declared himself in favour of strengthening Bulgaria’s Western orientation, including its place inside the EU, with the next priority being for the country to enter the Schengen area. It was often claimed that his entry into politics could be attributed to ties with the Bulgarian media and industrial tycoon Ivo Prokopiev, who is close to Borissov. With regard to the presidential candidate of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Plevneliev stated that the election of Kalfin to the presidency would be, in effect, a third term for Parvanov. This was a way of reminding people of the uneasy relationship between Parvanov and the government of Boiko Borissov and an appeal to the ‘anti-leftist’ and ‘anti-socialist’ reflexes of voters on the right of the political spectrum who supported political parties other than the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria Ivaylo Kalfin, the presidential nominee of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, was elected by the party from a field of nine, five of whom retracted their candidacies just before the vote. Surprisingly, Kalfin won the first round with 72 votes out of 126, with Bulgarian Socialist Party MP Yanaki Stoilov securing second place with 35 votes. He was a member of the European Parliament (Socialists and Democrats) before the elections and had served as minister of Foreign Affairs and deputy prime minister from 2005 to 2009 in the coalition government led by Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Sergei Stanishev. As Sergei Stanishev said after Kalfin’s nomination, “Kalfin would be able to bring votes from outside the traditional electorate and take on board civil society”. Kalfin sought to portray his opponent as a puppet of the all-powerful prime minister, Boiko Borissov. He emphasized the need for a balance of power in the executive: control of the presidency by the ruling party would make it and its leader all powerful, with disastrous consequences for the country. Although he did not challenge the country’s Western, and indeed European, orientation, Kalfin often spoke in favour of a more balanced foreign policy, by which he implied that the country should not underestimate the importance of relations with the Russian Federation, China and international actors other than the USA and the EU.

Kalfin’s political links with the ethnic-Turkish-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms and its leader, Ahmed Dogan, and the party’s relations with the Bulgarian Socialist party from the time of its participation in the coalition government (2005-2009), were crucial in determining the stance of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms in the second round of the presidential elections, offering its political support to the presidential nominee of the Bulgarian Socialist Party. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms supported Kalfin and not Meglena Kuneva, who had also hoped for the Movement’s political support due to their historic relations from the time of the Movement for Rights and Freedom’s past participation in coalition governments with the National Movement Simeon the Second (now renamed the National Movement for Stability and Progress), the political party through which Meglena Kuneva was elevated to the country’s political class.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms thought that Kalfin’s chances of reaching the second round and becoming presidential candidate of the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria was stronger. The Movement was hoping for this result because of discriminatory statements against Bulgaria Turks and allegedly anti-national activities of the leader of the Movement for the Rights and Freedoms made in the past by members of the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, including its presidential candidate, Rosen Plevneliev. Also crucial was the political collaboration between the ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria and the National Union Attack – the latter had often exchanged polemic statements with the Movement for the Rights and Freedoms.

Finally, Meglena Kuneva, the former European Commissioner, was an independent candidate, who until the end of September 2011 had been coming second in opinion polls and had been tipped to reach the second round of the presidential election. Kuneva emphasized the fact that she was not supported by any political party and claimed that Bulgaria needed a non-partisan president. She pledged that if she was elected president she would seek the opinions of citizens and NGOs and encourage civil control of ruling bodies, without always arguing persuasively how she would do this. She pledged she would hold national referendums on big issues facing the country and use her right to veto, or refer to the Constitutional Court, laws that impinged on or undermined economic liberty and good government principles. She is a member of the National Movement for Stability and Progress and headed the party’s ticket for the 2009 elections for the European Parliament and, as such, helped Bulgaria to win two seats. Her affiliation with the party, together with the fact that the political influence of the National Movement for Stability and Progress is declining, were important factors which finally undermined her chances of reaching  the second round of the elections.

With Bulgaria’s next objective after entrance to the EU being to join the Schengen area, issues such as corruption and organized crime shared an important place in the political agendas of the presidential candidates. European organs and officials had often stressed to Bulgarian state officials the need to reform the country’s judicial system and make it more transparent, as well as to take effective measures to fight corruption and organized crime. Presidential candidates such as Meglena Kuneva and Ivaylo Kalfin often emphasized their service in the European Commission and European Parliament respectively and the experience thus gained in dealing with these issues. But, instead of a constructive debate on these issues, in most cases the campaign was often derailed by issues relating to the personal and moral integrity of the candidates.

An Assessment of the Election’s Outcome for Future Politics in Bulgaria

The outcome of the October 2011 presidential election in Bulgaria could signify the following changes in Bulgarian politics:

  • Rosen Plevneliev’s victory means that the ruling party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, now controls all the major posts and has bolstered support for its painful economic reforms in a country where the average monthly salary is £426, unemployment is 11.7% and the level of corruption remains high. Cohabitation between the presidency and the government is expected to be easier than the period of Georgi Parvanov’s tenure in office. The latter often used his constitutional prerogatives to veto legislation such as the Finance Ministry’s proposal of a stability pact, a set of rules to be written into the constitution that would cap the Bulgarian government’s budget spending and the maximum budget deficit allowed in any given year. The government now has a free hand to promote its policies.
  • In the post-Cold War period Bulgaria has tried to develop its relations with the West without disturbing its relations with the Russian Federation, on which the country has been economically dependent as a result of its close alliance with the Soviet Union – the closest among East European countries – during the Cold War and the affiliation which many Bulgarians feel towards Russia for historic and cultural reasons. Bulgaria’s Western orientation is expected to continue, including the country’s further integration into the European structures with the next aim being entry to the Schengen area. This will depend on the country’s efforts to fight organized crime and corruption, which, given that the ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria party controls all posts after Rosen Plevneliev’s election to the presidency, could become easier if it shows determination to promote the necessary political reforms. However, relations with the Russian Federation may experience disturbance if the government’s foreign policy is ideologically driven by anti-Russian views which might not be checked by the presidency.
  • The presidential election of October 2011 registered the declining appeal of the National Union Attack and its leader, Volen Siderov, who had seen their political influence increase since the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. However, the Katounitsa incident has shown that extremist and racist views are still present and appeal to some sections of Bulgarian society. Nevertheless, given the decline of the National Union Attack, it remains to be seen whether these views will seek political expression through existing mainstream political parties or through a new extremist political party similar to the National Union Attack, with a similar or modified political agenda and the same political personnel.
  • Last but by no means least, the significant support for Meglena Kuneva, a Bulgarian technocrat with long and rich experience in European matters who came close to reaching the second round of the presidential elections , but lost to Ivaylo Kalfin, a Bulgarian member of the European Parliament, may show that an important part of Bulgarian society has become tired of seeking solutions to the country’s political and social problems, such as unemployment, corruption and organized crime, in the existing political personnel – traditional political parties such as the Bulgarian Socialist Party or new, ‘flashy’, ‘promising’ and often ephemeral political parties and their leaders, such as the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, the National Union Attack or indeed the National Movement Simeon the Second (now renamed the National Movement for Stability and Progress). This part of Bulgarian society may wish to try moderate and pragmatic political activists with experience in European affairs. It remains to be seen if this is a short-lived incident related to the political appeal of the two personalities or a phenomenon which will seek political expression in the future in the context of the current EU economic and political crisis, which elsewhere – for example in Greece and Italy – has led to technocrats assuming power with the encouragement and support of EU officials in Brussels. 
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