25/06/2005 - Analysis
On 25th June next the Bulgarians will be called to ballot to elect their 40th Parliament. The victors of these general elections will form the government who will witness Bulgaria's entry into the European Union (membership planned for 1st January 2007).
The Political System
The National Assembly comprises the only Chamber in Parliament. It has 240 MP's elected every four years by proportional vote within thirty one electoral constituencies. The constituencies are composed using the results of the census 2001 published after the previous general elections as a base. Amongst the biggest are the three constituencies in the capital, Sofia, that comprise respectively 11, 12 and 13 seats, Varna has 14, the Region of Plovdiv and Stara Zagora 11, Plovdiv-Town, Pleven and Blagoevgrad 10. A minimum of 4% of the votes cast is vital for a political party to be represented in Parliament.
At present four parties are represented in the National Assembly:
- The National Simeon II Movement (NDS II), at the centre of the political arena this is the party of Prime Minister Simeon de Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. It had 120 MP's in the last elections on 17th June 2001;
- The Coalition for Bulgaria (KzB) is an alliance of various leftwing parties including the main one, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), led by Serguei Stanichev. The Coalition won 48 seats last time;
- The Union of Democratic Forces (ODS) is the biggest rightwing party in the country. It is led by former Foreign Affairs Minister, Nadejda Mihaïlova, and won 51 seats in Parliament last time round;
- The Movement for Rights and Liberty (DPS), led since 1989 by Ahmed Dogan, is a member of the present government coalition and represents the Turkish minority in the country (around 8% of Bulgarians). It is allied to the Liberal Union (LS) and to the movement for the defence of the Roms, Euroroma (E), it won 21 seats.
Last April the electoral law was modified by Parliament. The changes undertaken and accepted by all of the political parties aimed to rationalise the electoral procedure. Hence it was decided that the coloured party oriented voting slips were abolished in favour of a single slip (white with the party's name, the candidates and the constituency). The political parties must now present a list of support of at least 5,000 voters and above all a financial deposit of 20,000 leva (10,000 euro) for a party, 40,000 for a coalition and 5,000 for a support committee. This deposit is reimbursed if the party, coalition or support committee wins at least 1% of the votes cast. The objective of this change is to avoid the multiplication of political parties created just to win votes from their adversaries. The new electoral law enables students to vote in the town where they are studying and not only in the town where their parents live. Finally a special commission will now check for candidates' links with the security services of the former Communist regime. The results of the investigations undertaken by this commission will only be communicated to the leaders of the political party to which the candidate belongs. This last modification in the law has occurred somewhat late since the archives have already been emptied of any compromising documents. In addition to this public opinion is perhaps less sensitive about the candidates' past; hence during the last general elections on 17th June 2001 the number of denunciations that some candidates were the target of did not prevent the National Simeon II Movement from asserting itself en masse.
Votes from abroad will be counted differently from the previous years when they were granted to a specific constituency (Dobrich). The votes will now be broken down and added to the votes of each of the parties then redistributed in the same proportion as the votes collated across the whole of Bulgaria.
Bulgaria will spend 15 million leva (slightly more than 7 million euros) for the general elections of 25th June next, i.e. four million more than four years ago. This rise is mainly due to the increase in the number of polling stations abroad that have quadrupled in comparison with 2001.
The Stakes of these General Elections
During the last general elections on 17th June 2001, unemployment that affected 18% of the working population comprised one of the Bulgarians' main concerns. At present the question of security, the improvement of the standard of life and the running of the legal system are issues that concern voters. Because of the recurrent dysfunction of the legal system the Constitutional Court has incidentally decided to elect a constituent assembly that will undertake a reform of the structure of the entire system.
Bulgaria lies penultimate in the economic ranking of the candidate countries to the European Union, just ahead of Turkey but outdistanced by Romania and Croatia. However the country did experience six years of uninterrupted growth between 1997 and 2004 (4.2% on average) and a drop in its unemployment levels even though this was still high (13%), notably amongst the ethnic minorities and in the countryside. Inflation has dropped below 10% since 2001. The standard of life per inhabitant is still weak however representing only 28% of the European Union average. The country's economic and financial stability, although it has been consolidated, is still extremely fragile.
In 2004, Bulgaria became a full member of NATO and on 25th April last in Luxembourg the country signed the membership treaty to the European Union. Seven Bulgarians in ten are in favour of the country's entry into the Union – that should take effect on 1st January 2007. The President of the Republic, Gueorgui Parvanov (Socialist Party), wanted to organise a referendum on this issue.
In February this year the failure to privatise the Bulgartabac group triggered off a political crisis. The growth of tobacco that employs 300,000 people is undertaken by the Turkish speaking minority which in turn suffers from a very high unemployment rate. Their political representative, the Movement for Rights and Liberty, a member of the government coalition caused the failure of the purchase of three of the 22 factories of the Bulgartabac group (in Sofia, Plovdiv and Blagoegrad) by British-American Tobacco (BAT) for 250 million euros. The Movement for Rights and Liberty requested a debate in Parliament; the opposition parties – the Union of Democratic Forces and the Socialist Party – immediately accepted this just to put the government in a difficult position. On the initiative of New Times a dissident group of the Movement for Rights and Liberty, the opposition parties voted on the 4th February the dismissal of the president of Parliament, Ognian Guerdjikov (NDS II) who was accused of having delayed the privatisation of Bulgartabac. Strengthened by this success the opposition parties and New Times joined forces to table a motion of censure against the government. Back to the wall Prime Minister Simeon de Saxe-Coburg-Gotha owed his survival to the negotiation of a compromise with his partners in the Movement for Rights and Liberty and had to undertake a major ministerial reshuffle on 23rd February. One of the leaders of New Times, Miroslav Sevlievski, was appointed minister for Energy. Milko Kovatchev, who occupied this position replaced Lidia Chouleva in Economy since she, along with the Minister for Agriculture, Mehmed Dikme had been held responsible for the failure of the privatisation of Bulgartabac. Lidia Chouleva had been asked by Simeon de Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to lead his party's electoral campaign for the elections on 25th June. Mehmed Dikme relinquished his place to Nihat Kabil, another member of the Movement for Rights and Liberty. Finally Nina Chilova replaced, Bojidar Abrachev (NDS II) at the Ministry for Culture; the latter's inertia had been much criticised by the media.
The Electoral Campaign
On 30th March last the president of the main rightwing party, the United Democratic Forces, Nadejda Mihaïlova, presented her party's programme. Amongst them feature economic liberty (support of entrepreneurs), the increase in incomes, the reduction of taxes and social contributions, the optimisation of government expenditure, the transparency of privatisation (the systematic use of calls for tender) and the development of a private system for retirement pensions.
On April 9th it was the Socialist Party's turn to present its programme. Serguei Stanichev, its president, said he was prepared "to bear the responsibility of government over the next four years." He promised to undertake a "realistic campaign" in order to inform the Bulgarians of the risks of an insufficiently competitive economy. The Socialist Party programme plans for a rise in wages of around 20% "to make up for differences in incomes before joining the European Union" and two yearly increases in salaries according to the GDP and inflation. The programme also plans for a decrease in VAT on milk, bread and medicines, payment by the State for children under six years old who come from the poorest families and free school books.
For its part the National Simeon II Movement is relying on its results and promises to continue its activities. This party that is appreciated by international economic institutions, does not find the same unanimous support amongst the Bulgarians who are increasingly tired of the long years of transition.
The various parties have also started competing on the personalities they will put forward on their electoral lists. Hence the Socialist Party will have amongst its candidates the twice Olympic shooting champion, Marija Grozdeva, the United Democratic Forces would like to invest in footballer Christo Stoïchkov and the Party of Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, a rightwing party led by former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, in opera singer Aleksandrina Pendatchanska. The latter who is standing in the country's third biggest town, Varna, will be standing against the star singer of tchalga, Vassil Boïanov (pop-folk variety music that is purposely provocative and in poor taste), who is more widely known as Aziz and who will be representing Euroroma, a party led by Tsveletlin Kantchev, representative of the Roms of Bulgaria. The National Simeon II Movement has called upon the secretary general of the Interior Ministry, Bojko Borisov, known for his firm stance with regard to criminality and his criticism of the national legal system; he is also one of the most popular men in Bulgaria. Bojko Borisov will, as the electoral law allows, be chief candidate in two constituencies.
The most recent local elections on 26th October 2003 showed that Bulgaria was divided. During the election the Socialist Party became the country's leading political force (36.5% of the mayors elected), the National Simeon II Movement only managed to rally one Bulgarian in ten (4.9% of the mayors elected). However the participation rate was exceptionally low in these elections; only one third of the electorate went to ballot during the first round and 38.65% one week later.
In the opinion polls around 30% of the electorate said they do not intend to vote on 25th June. The Minister for Public Administration, Dimitar Kaltchev announced that 1.25 million leva (620,000 euros) would be released to encourage participation in the general elections. In order to encourage the electorate to vote the government has planned for a grand lottery. Four million leva (two million euro) have been used to buy the prizes, notably mobile phones and computers. The prizes will be distributed after a draw. According to a survey undertaken by Sova Harris and published on 3rd June seven Bulgarians in ten disapprove of the idea of the lottery. The vice-president of the Socialist Party Roumen Petkov accuses the government of trying via this method to prevent his party, whose electorate is usually the most motivated, to gain an absolute majority on 25th June and has petitioned the Administrative Court about the tombola. Parliament will meet again on 9th June next in an extraordinary session to decide whether this lottery is constitutional or not.
According to the poll undertaken by Barometer Info and published on 2nd June, 22.8% of the electorate intended to vote for the Socialist Party versus 14.2% for the National Simeon II Movement and 7.9% for the United Democratic Forces. The ruling party seems to have the support of the inhabitants of the capital Sofia and the towns; the rural population prefers the Socialist Party. The National Simeon II Movement has decided to invest in the constituencies won by the Socialist Party during the local elections in 2003.
The difference between the two parties that always tends towards the opposition is however tightening as the election date approaches. When interviewed about the personality they would like to see leading the government 22% say Serguei Stanichev and 18.5% Simeon de Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Many political analysts think that the choice of Prime Minister will comprise a vital element that will motivate the vote of those who are still undecided in the election on 25th June next.
Reminder of the General Election Results 17th June 2001
Source: Bulgarian Central Electoral Commission