Bulgaria’s presidential and municipal elections Sunday were a vote in favour of the status quo and against the far right, despite concerns that recent racially motivated protests and cynicism about the standard parties could boost the political fringe.The ruling party, GERB, claimed a 40 per cent plurality in the presidential election with candidate Rosen Plevneliev, a former minister of regional development. The mainstream opposition candidate picked up 30 per cent of the vote, while the fractured far right performed poorly.
The contest for the presidency, which comes with significant diplomatic and security responsibilities but little executive power, is seen as a step forward for Bulgaria because it was contested by three highly regarded candidates. The race goes to a runoff on Sunday.
“The election turned into a vote of confidence in the current government of GERB,” says Daniel Smilov, of the centre for Liberal Strategies, a Sofia-based think tank. “In contrast with previous factions organised around popular leaders, GERB has managed to preserve the trust of the people two years into their term of office in parliament.”
But the vote could also be a reflection of widespread resignation. Many Bulgarians are disillusioned with the political establishment, driven in part by suspicions of vote-buying, and believe that regardless of which party is elected, corruption is likely to continue and the economy is unlikely to pick up. With a strong candidate like Mr. Plevneliev, GERB may be seen as the best option.
The mainstream opposition held its ground as well – the candidate fielded by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), Ivaylo Kalfin, took 30 per cent of the vote and will be in the runoff against Mr. Plevneliev. Mr. Kalfin, a member of the European Parliament and a former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, is a protégé of outgoing President Georgi Parvanov.
GERB also performed strongly in the municipal elections, topping the ballot in several major mayoralties, including Sofia. The result is a boost for the party, which has declined in popularity since its landslide win in the 2009 general election because of perceived authoritarianism, a weak economy, and the slow pace of anticorruption efforts.
GERB’s backing of Plevneliev, who was a popular minister and well-regarded businessman, seems to have paid off. If Plevneliev wins the runoff, as he is expected to, GERB will be in the enviable position of controlling both the presidency and the parliament, under Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.
A potential obstacle for the party – and a potential sign of hope to Mr. Kalfin in the runoff – is concern about the concentration of power in GERB’s hands with a presidential victory. Bulgarians have generally favoured a prime minister from one party and a president from another. Many, even on the right, would welcome a check on the government, already seen as barely challenged by a weakened and divided parliamentary opposition.
The BSP’s choice of Kalfin, one of the few Socialist figures seen as largely untainted by the party’s Communist past, has bolstered the party’s position as the leading opposition force in the historically fickle Bulgarian political scene.
Mr. Smilov of the Sofia think tank says that worries about corruption in the electoral system and endemic vote-buying raised by institutions such as the organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Transparency International should not be exaggerated. Transparency International estimates that 80 per cent of Bulgarians believe elections are manipulated – a high figure for an EU country.
“There were administrative difficulties, even some organizational chaos at moments in the organisation of the elections, but vote buying or vote manipulation have not actually affected the vote of people,” Smilov says. “This problem, it seems, has been over-exposed. It might be relevant for small localities, some Roma ghettos, but is generally marginal and cannot affect the overall fairness of the elections.”
The strength of the presidential candidates and party structures is a sign that Bulgaria’s democracy is maturing. However, if the European Union and OSCE are able to find proof to back up their suspicions of fraud, Bulgaria will face heavy criticism from the international community.
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