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Bulgaria’s political parties manoeuvre ahead of May 2019 European Parliament elections

Across the spectrum, Bulgaria’s political parties are manoeuvring ahead of the country’s May 26 2019 European Parliament elections, with both major and minor ones seeking alliances as well as honing their messages ahead of what is expected to be a hotly-contested poll.

The race is expected to be tightest between the two largest parties, Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s centre-right GERB and Kornelia Ninova’s opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party. Most polls see GERB as having a slight lead over the BSP in the contest for Bulgaria’s 17 seats in the European Parliament.

Complicating the picture is that the vote on that Sunday in May would be at the close of a three-day weekend, which could reduce voter turnout.

In the context of the wider race for the European Parliament, where a major theme will be the challenge from extreme populist and nationalist parties across the bloc, the president of the centre-right EU-wide European People’s Party, Joseph Daul, for right-wing parties to form a common front for the May vote.

On March 20, GERB’s leadership, including Borissov and parliamentary group leader Tsvetan Tsvetanov were due to meet the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) for talks on an electoral deal.

The UDF, in the late 1990s, used to be the pre-eminent political force in Bulgaria and was in government, unless it was steadily broken down by competition from transient swells in popularity from forces such as Simeon Saxe-Coburg’s party, and mainly by internal faction fighting. However insignificant a presence the UDF now is, GERB clearly is seeking to add a platoon or two to its battalions.

“I am convinced with such meetings, we can actually consolidate all democratically-thinking Bulgarian citizens,” Tsvetanov told Bulgarian National Radio ahead of the meeting with the UDF.

The GERB-UDF talks annoyed Democratic Bulgaria, the party formed around reformist former justice minister Hristo Ivanov, which also had been seeking alliances with groups such as the UDF to bolster the below-threshold percentage the opinion polls say it currently has.

Democratic Bulgaria said that it had been obliged to seek partnership with other democratic political forces given the need to unite citizens from the democratic community “to counteract the anti-democratic and anti-European tendencies in the current government of GERB”.

“The key for us was the attitude of our possible partners towards the ‘Borissov model’ and the current governance of the country with the so-called ‘Patriots’ in the context of the threat to the EU from the wave of national populism and the establishment of authoritarian regimes under the strong influence of the Kremlin.

“Undoubtedly, Borissov’s unilateralist corrupt regime has the same nature as the Orban and Kaczynski regimes, and these elections, albeit European, will be a referendum on this government and this parliament that are working against the democratic European future of our country,” Democratic Bulgaria said.

Unfortunately, through a series of recent decisions, statements and actions, the current UDF leadership apparently chose the side of power and the “Borissov model,” Ivanov’s party said.

Ninova’s party also is seeking alliances, though the BSP’s main thrust for the European Parliament elections appears to be an attempt to paint Borissov’s government as corrupt and itself as the alternative.

The BSP has held talks with one of Bulgaria’s minor “green” parties. It has had overtures from the ABC party founded by former BSP leader and former president Georgi Purvanov, though Ninova’s party has been cool about approaches by the current leadership of ABC to return to the fold.

In a highly-contested manouevre, the national council of Ninova’s party chose to name its European Parliament candidate list leader as Elena Yoncheva, an MP who is a former journalist, over Sergei Stanishev, leader of the Party of European Socialists, a former BSP leader and former prime minister of a BSP-led coalition government.

This manouevre by Ninova was seen largely as a move to displace Stanishev, with whom she and her BSP have had public disagreements, for example on the Istanbul Convention. Having pushed Yoncheva ahead of Stanishev (the full list of BSP candidate MEPs will be decided later, raising speculation Ninova might try to block him from the list altogether), the BSP has been at pains to try to paint Yoncheva as a corruption-fighter.

Ninova’s party also has sought to counter the fact that Yoncheva currently faces charges of large-scale money-laundering. Yoncheva denies these charges, which she and the BSP see as a matter of political persecution.

The Yoncheva manouevre has annoyed members of the old guard of the BSP, who have openly suggested that there was manipulation in her choice. From the “civil quota” of the BSP MPs in the National Assembly, Yoncheva is not a member of the party.

In a sideswipe at Ninova, Stanishev has publicly asked whether the same principle should apply, that the leader of the BSP should not be a member of the National Assembly.

As is well known by now, the three parties in the United Patriots, the grouping of ultra-nationalists that is the minority partner in Borissov’s third government, are anything but united.

Barring a last-minute deal among Krassimir Karakachanov’s VMRO, Valeri Simeonov’s National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria and Volen Siderov’s Ataka, it appears that the three parties each will go it alone in the European Parliament elections. Each of the three parties – accurately described in a recent Bulgarian National Radio report as “incessantly bickering” – has its own candidate list leader.

The sole remaining optimist among the three co-leaders appears to be Karakachanov, who said that he hoped that a single United Patriots ticket in May was still possible.

Current prospects are that the best chance for the grouping to win a seat is to stand together. At best, from their point of view, one of the three parties may win a seat, though chances seem better that the electoral system will see the grouping’s current sole seat (held by a VMRO figure on a now-defunct ticket from 2014) would go elsewhere.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms is progressing towards the May 2019 vote with no apparent drama. Deposed former MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan’s breakaway DOST project has failed, and polls indicate that those MRF voters who backed it will return to the fold. On March 30, the MRF will announce a list of 17 candidate MEPs. Opinion surveys suggest that it will get third place, meaning perhaps about four MEPs.

A missing piece of the puzzle, for now, is who will be the list leader for GERB, which is expected to announce its candidates on March 31, making it the last of the parties to do so. Reportedly, the candidate with the most nominations from party branches is Mariya Gabriel, elected as a GERB MEP in 2009 and again in 2014 before being named a European Commissioner in May 2017.

GERB, meanwhile, has effectively been on the campaign trail since January with its “Europe in your home” campaign. Tsvetanov also said recently that one of its key messages would be how GERB’s policies are aligned with those of the wider EPP, in contrast to the situation with other parties – a reference to the discord between Ninova’s BSP and Stanishev’s PES./IBNA

(Photo of the European Parliament building in Strasbourg via pixabay.com)

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