General Elections in Bulgaria, 5th July 2009


Corinne Deloy,  

Fondation Robert Schuman,  

Helen Levy


5 June 2009

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Deloy Corinne

Corinne Deloy

Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).

Robert Schuman Fondation

Fondation Robert Schuman

Levy Helen

Helen Levy

On 28th April last the Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov announced that the next general elections would take place on 5th July i.e. the latest date allowed by the Constitution and one month after the European election organised on 7th June. The Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB) were the only ones to protest against this date since the party wanted the vote to take place on 28th June. Some politicians asked for the general elections to be held on the same day as the European elections arguing that the simultaneous nature of both elections would help to save money and also increase turnout.

The Bulgarian Political System

The Bulgarian Parliament is monocameral. Its only chamber, the National Assembly, comprises 240 MPs elected every four years within 31 electoral constituencies which correspond to the oblasti (counties). The constituencies are formed using the results of the latest census published after the previous general elections as a base. Amongst the biggest of these the three constituencies of Sofia have respectively 11, 12 and 13 seats, Varna has 14, the region of Plovdiv and Stara Zagora, 11, Pleven and Blagoevgrad, 10. A minimum of 4% of the votes cast is vital for a political party to be represented in Parliament.

7 parties are represented in the National Assembly at present:

- the Coalition for Bulgaria (KzB), an alliance of various leftwing parties including the main one, the Socialist Party (BSP) is led by outgoing Prime Minister with 82 seats;

- the National Simeon II Movement (NDSII) created in 2001, lies to the centre and became the National Movement for Stability and Progress (MNSE); this is the party led by former Prime Minister (2001-2005) Siméon de Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha (Siméon Borisov Sakskoburggotski) and has 53 seats;

- Ataka, a far right party led by Volen Siderov, has 21 seats;

- the Union of Democratic Forces (ODS) has 20 seats ;

- the Movement for Rights and Freedom (DPS), led since 1989 by Ahmed Dogan, represents the Turkish minority (around 8%). A member of the outgoing government coalition the party has 34 seats;

- the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB) a rightwing party of former Prime Minister (1997-2001) Ivan Kostov has 17 MPs;

- the Bulgarian People's Union (BNS) led by former Mayor of Sofia, Stefan Sofianski, a centre-right party most of whose members are from the Democratic Forces Union. It has 13 seats.

The political party, Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB, which means "blazon" is Bulgarian) credited with the greatest number of voting intentions just one month before the election, has no seats in the present National Assembly. An NGO which became a political party on 3rd December 2007 to fight "a corrupt, inept" elite, the GERB is led by Tsvetan Tsvetanov but its real leader is Boïko Borissov, former body guard to the Head Communist Bulgaria (1971-1989), Todor Jivkov, former chief secretary to the Home Minister under the Siméon II government (2001-2005) and present Mayor of Sofia.

The GERB won the last two elections. It won in the first European elections in Bulgaria on 6th June 2007 with 21.68% of the vote ahead of the Socialist Party (21.41%) and the Movement for Rights and Freedom (20.26%). It also won the local elections on 28th October and 4th November 2007. Boïko Borissov was re-elected Mayor Sofia in the first round with 53% of the vote. The second town Plovdiv also chose a GERB Mayor, Slavcho Atanasov.

A Difficult Reform of the Electoral Law

Although Bulgaria has elected its MPs by proportional representation since 1912 Parliament voted in April in favour of a reform of the electoral law establishing a mixed system close to the one applied in Germany. 31 of the 240 MPs will be appointed by a majority system, the remaining 209 will be elected proportionally. Voters will have two voting slips in the next general elections on 5th July. With the first of these they will vote for a candidate (who will be appointed by majority vote) and with the second they will vote for a list of candidates established by a political party (the election will then be proportional). The same person can appear as a candidate in the majority election and also feature on the party list.

In addition to this the new electoral law stipulates that physical people and private companies can no longer fund electoral campaigns; physical people can make donations up to 5,000 levas maximum (2,557€). Those caught buying votes will have to pay a fine of 20,000 to 50,000 levas (10,227€ - 25,564€) and risk up to six years on prison. Finally candidates must have a clean police record. This latter measure will only come into force after the 5th July election since Parliament has not yet adopted the amendment.

Apart from the introduction of a notion of majority voting the electoral reform firstly modified the minimum threshold that a party coalition had to achieve to be represented in Parliament. Previously set at 4% of the votes cast, for parties and coalitions alike, it was raised to 8% for coalitions rallying several parties. Both government parties – the Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedom justified the increase in the electoral threshold because of their desire to fight against the creation of coalitions which did not adhere to any political principle. Ataka and the Party for Order, Law and Justice (RZS) also supported the modification of the electoral law.

However the National Movement for Stability and Progress, member of the government coalition, the Democratic Forces Union, the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria and New Bulgarian Democracy created in December 2007 by former MPs from the National Movement for Stability and Progress were against it. "The ruling coalition wants to steal the elections and sabotage the right to vote," maintained the leader of Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, Ivan Kostov. The opposition even joked about this and suggested to the BSP that they re-introduce article 1 of the old Constitution which prohibited any other party but the Communist Party from taking part in the elections.

President Parvanov also protested against the "unjustified increase in the electoral threshold which would limit political pluralism which is part of the constitutional values," adding, "the threshold is 4% and has been used for the last 18 years and has proved its efficacy." On 15th April Georgi Parvanov placed his veto against the amendment of the electoral law. The President, who had been the originator of the establishment of the mixed system, criticized the amendment establishing the number of MPs elected by majority vote at 31 stressing that this number had to be higher to overcome voter apathy.

On 22nd April BSP, DPS and MPs from the Party for Order, Law and Justice voted in favour of lifting the veto placed by the President, three voted against. The MNSE, the ODS and the DSB did not take part in the vote. "The rejection of the presidential veto is not contrary to the Constitution. The question of whether measures such as this help to re-establish voter confidence with regard to politicians is raised however," said Georgi Parvanov before the MPs voted.

However the drama was not over since 70 opposition and majority MPs then took the case to the Constitutional Court. This finally decided on 12th May to reject the modification of the electoral threshold 11 votes against, 1 in favour with regard to coalitions deeming that this infringed the equality of the right to vote. However the Court did reject the request also put forward to cancel the majority part of the vote.

The Issues at Stake in the General Elections

The present government coalition led by Serguey Stanishev is often qualified as a Russian-Hispano-Turkish government because in addition to the Socialist Party, party of the Prime Minister who is half Russian, there is also the National Movement for Stability and Progress led by Simeon of Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha, who spent his exile in Spain and the Movement for Rights and Freedom which represents the country's Turkish minority.

During its term in office the government has had to face 7 motions of defiance delivered by the opposition. The latter mainly accuses the BSP for its ineffective management of the economic crisis, the fight against corruption and organized crime. The government parties point to the work undertaken over the last four years: doubling retirement pensions and salaries in the public sector, a 2/3 increase in private sector salaries, GDP increase of 6%, a budgetary surplus representing 1.5% of the GDP and a reduction in the unemployment rate down to 5.5% (2008 figures). In addition to this Prime Minister Serguey Stanishev recalls that he took Bulgarian into the EU (1st January 2007) and that he succeeded in reforming the legal system, notably by creating the Supreme Council of Justice. However on 23rd July 2008, the European Commission pointed to inadequacies in the judicial system and the fight against corruption and organised crime and for the first time adopted a formal decision to suspend certain community funds until the Bulgarian authorities are able to show they had set up healthy financial management structures. On 12th February it delivered another follow-up report detailing the amount of progress that still has to be made.

Moreover the country's economy has changed greatly over the last few months. The international economic crisis has pushed demand down and made investors reticent. The GDP growth rate is due to rest at -1.6% this year (and -0.1% in 2010), the GDP fell by 3.5% in the first quarter of 2009, a first since 1998, fiscal revenue fell by 6.4 billion levas over the last three months and budgetary deficit is due to represent 0.5% of the GDP in 2009 (and 0.3% the following year) whilst the State budget was in surplus just a few months ago. Finally the unemployment rate is due to rise to 7.3% and to 7.8% in 2010. The only optimistic forecast: inflation that lay at 12.3% in 2008, is due to decline to 3.5% in 2009 (3.2% the following year). To manage the economic crisis, the government increased social investments and expenditure to create jobs and to help the elderly (increase in retirement pensions) and the poorest. State spending increased by 15.9% over the last twelve months. The Bulgarian Central Bank did however criticise the government's spending pointing to the danger of budgetary deficit. In spite of the measures taken, Bulgaria may, according to some economists, be the next country, in the wake of Hungary, Latvia, Romania and Poland, to turn for help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). When interviewed about the economic crisis half of the Bulgarians support the appointment of a government of experts to lead the country.

The BSP says it is open to the formation of a pre-electoral coalition that shares its political programme. Head of Government Serguey Stanishev will be the BSP's lead candidate in the constituency of Varna. Plamen Oresharski, outgoing Finance Minister initially appointed lead candidate in Plovdiv, will now stand in Bourgas.

On 6th April some of the BSP members quit the party and created the Left Party. "The Socialist Party has moved over to the right, we need a party that represents the leftwing voters," declared co-founder Iliya Bozhinov. The Left Party that has taken its inspiration from the German party, Die Linke, wants to re-establish the social nature of the State, vanquish poverty, exploitation and unemployment. It is also asking for a 50% raise in retirement pensions and for the lowest wages to be increased. According to political analysts the party should however not have much influence over the next elections.

In an electoral programme entitled "Overcome the crisis by joining forces" the GERB set two main goals: the fight against the black economy and the enhancement of relations between universities and companies. To boost consumption the party is demanding a 5% reduction in social contributions, and a 50 leva rise (25.5€) for retirement pensions for the over 75's and for a 20% and 40% rise for widows' and widowers' pensions. It is promising the creation of a guarantee and support fund for farmers, the possibility for towns to support investments made in their area (after they have been discussed in public debate) and a simplification of administrative formalities for companies. However the GERB has given up its project to reduce VAT which it wanted to maintain at 20%. The restitution of VAT is one of the main problems experienced by Bulgarian companies.

"The GERB will remain in the opposition if it does not win the majority which will enable it to form a government," declared Boïko Borissov who added, "when you need MPs from another party to guarantee your majority that's when trouble starts. In the present government the National Movement for Stability and Progress has to agree with the Movement for Rights and Freedom and the Socialist Party and the latter also has to agree with the Movement for Rights and Freedom. This is exactly what I would like to avoid." The GERB will stand alone and maintains that it will not govern with the BSP at any price. It also accuses the ruling party of lying to the electorate when it maintains that the two parties will be forced to govern together after 5th July and of deceiving the Bulgarians by trying to make them believe there is no alternative to the BSP. In addition to this Boïko Borissov denied these accusations which suggest his party is prepared to undertake a regeneration policy, a term used to qualify the forced assimilation policy for Turkish speaking citizens undertaken by the Communist authorities in the 1980's. Boïko Borissov, who maintains that the GERB includes Muslim members, has however indicated that he found it abnormal that the Turkish language be used in the meetings of the Movement for Rights and Freedom.

The Union of Democratic Forces and the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria have joined forces within the Blue Coalition. "The Blue Coalition is the only party that will try to fight the oligarchy, everyone else is already dependent on them," declared the party's chairman Martin Dimitrov. This alliance was not a simple one to form. Indeed after the party was re-formed the leader of the Democratic Forces Union could be registered for another six months. As a result the fate of the Coalition was on the line until the last minute and its registration in time for the general elections was accepted in extremis by the electoral authorities.

The previous leader of the Union of Democratic Forces, Plamen Yourukov, said that he supported a rightwing union to rally voters but he demanded the withdrawal of the people who had previously occupied executive positions, notably Ivan Kostov, leader of the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria. "Ivan Kostov usurped the vote, he broke up the Union of Democratic Forces and worked against the party," stressed Plamen Yourukov. Some members of the Union of Democratic Forces quit the party after it joined forces with the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria. They may draw closer to the Party for Order, Law and Justice led by Yané Yanev. On 3rd June the Supreme Administrative Court rejected Plamen Yourukov's latest request which challenged the registration of the Blue Coalition for the 5th July election.

The Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria is demanding a reduction in social contributions, a simplification of employment procedures and an increase in retirement pensions. The Union of Democratic Forces also supports a reduction in social contributions and hopes to devote 6% of the GDP to education. The Blue Coalition was joined by the Agrarian Union of Anastasia Moser and the Social Democratic Party of Yordan Nihrizov.

"If the GERB and the Blue Coalition lead the government we shall have to be prepared to put up with an authoritarian regime like the one we experienced during the government of the Union of Democratic Forces (1997-2001) but this time it will be multiplied by two. Ivan Kostov would be predominant and impose his way of governing," declared the Prime Minister Serguey Stanishev. In his opinion the BSP's mission is to "prevent a return to the model of government that Bulgaria experienced between 1997-2001" he declared in the newspaper Standart on 18th May. The head of government guaranteed that there would be no negotiating between his party and the GERB.

The Bulgarians are very mistrustful of their governments: 18.7% of them say they are confident in the government, 13% in their parliament according to a poll by MBMD in February. Consecutive changes to the reform of the electoral law should have a direct effect on voter confidence who often think they are witnessing debates that are neither clearly oriented nor for the good of the country. A poll by Market Links reveals that corruption, unemployment and the poor running of the healthcare system are the Bulgarians' main concerns.

The power struggle revealed by the European elections on 7th June will also reflect event in the general election on 5th July. "The European elections are the first half time in this match," said Boïko Borissov.

According to the most recent poll by Sova Harris the GERB leads in the voting intentions with 36.8%. They are due to win 100 of the 240 seats in the National Assembly. It is forecast to be followed by the BSP that is due to win 26.4% of the vote (70 seats), Ataka (10.5%), the Movement for Rights and Freedom (9.8%) and the Blue Coalition (7.8%).

High turnout (this rose to 55.8% in the last general election on 25th June 2005) would favour the GERB.

Source : Central Electoral Commission of Bulgaria

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