A final extrapolation of the performance of Bulgaria’s major political parties must await the outcome of voting in the second round of mayoral elections on October 30, as electorates in 18 capitals of administrative centres return to ballot booths.
The October 23 vote produced decisive results in nine cities: Sofia, Bourgas, Pazarjhik, Kyustendil, Kurdjali, Gabrovo, Shoumen and Dobrich. In Bulgaria’s capital city, apart from incumbent mayor Yordanka Fandukova’s victory, ruling party GERB also took 33 out of 61 municipal council seats, followed by 15 for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, eight for the Blue Coalition, two each for Ataka and the National Movement for Stability and Progress and one for the VMRO-BNM.
In cities that produced first-round victories, four were held by GERB, one by the socialists, two by independents, one by Ahmed Dogan’s Movement for Rights and Freedoms and by the VMRO.
Most of the run-offs see contests between GERB and the BSP, but while the two parties already embarked on rival claims of progress nationally in the first round, some smaller political forces clearly had lost ground since previous elections – notably, the centre-right Blue Coalition and ultra-nationalists Ataka.
One guide to analysing the outcome after October 30 will be to look at places that formerly were strongholds for individual parties – and the fact that these include places like Smolyan, where socialist mayor Dora Yankova had the tiniest of leads over her GERB challenger Nikolai Melemov, does not bode well for the socialists.
At the same time, however, the contest in Plovdiv, where ruling party GERB dropped its support for incumbent Slavcho Atanassov in favour of Ivan Totev, a move that failed to produce a decisive GERB victory, is hardly likely to be a source of comfort for GERB. Its solace would be that in the country’s second-largest city, the socialist candidate placed poorly indeed.
With Sofia and Bourgas having voted decisively, three of Bulgaria’s five largest cities faced a final choice.
Varna was shaping up to be a bitter battle. Incumbent mayor Kiril Yordanov, long associated with the socialist party, although in the previous election he stood as an independent, now is the GERB candidate,. He notched up about 30 per cent, insufficient to see off a challenge by Vesselin Mareshki, the wealthy owner of a chain of pharmacies, who got just more than 18 per cent. After the first round, Yordanov publicly took umbrage at the allegations that he said Mareshki had levelled against him, including of alcoholism and vote-buying among the Black Sea city’s Roma population. As they exchanged barbs, Mareshki suggested that any further public conversations between the two should be conducted while both were fitted with lie detectors.
A factor in the outcome in Varna on October 30 would be the choices made by those who, at the first round, gave just less than 15 per cent to the socialist mayoral candidate.
The Totev vs Atanassov run-off in Plovdiv was made all that much more intriguing by the fact that in the first round, their respective results were not that far apart: about 35 per cent for the GERB candidate, just more than 29 per cent for the incumbent. In Plovdiv, the socialist candidate got less than 10 per cent in the first round and should those voters return to the polls, their options would likely be guided only by whichever candidate they would most want to damage – in this case, probably Totev, as a blow nationally against GERB; the only reason that a socialist would put their blue-ink cross next to the name of a nationalist VMRO standard-bearer. An indication of the symbolic importance of the contest in Plovdiv was that on the Tuesday after the first round, it was visited by GERB presidential candidate Rossen Plevneliev, who went walkabout in the city’s main shopping area in the company of Totev and a gaggle of media.
Rousse, which is being asked to choose a wholly new mayor, was presented with a choice of 14 at the first round. Of these, GERB’s Plamen Stoilov got just short of 44 per cent and Iskren Vesselinov, backed by the centre-right Blue Coalition and the VMRO, just less than 20 per cent. These first-round results appear to make the final outcome reasonably predictable.
The contest in Smolyan has dramatic as well as political value in terms of watchability.
On live television on the day after the first round, Yankova appeared to be working hard to hold on to her poise as she said that now the political contest was over and it was up to the community to make a choice. For several years an influential figure in the socialist party, it is not just her mayoralty that is at stake.
The Central Election Commission said on October 26 that Yankova had won 8619 votes (41.33 per cent) and GERB’s Melemov 8518 (40.84 per cent). The Movement for Rights and Freedom’s Boiko Mladenov got 6.27 per cent and the Blue Coalition’s Zarko Marinov 3.63 per cent. Other votes were spread among tiny parties and local coalitions. At the same time, in Smolyan’s municipal election results, GERB won 35.25 per cent and the socialists 30.33 per cent.
If voter turnout does not change, and the electorate of Dogan’s party follows the lead given in the presidential elections by the MRF leader, Yankova could win a further term; but it is equally true that GERB could muster sufficient anti-Yankova and anti-socialist votes to place Melemov in the mayor’s chair.
Smolyan’s is one among a number of close-run races. In Vidin, the contest is between GERB’s Vladimir Toshev (23 per cent) and the socialists’ Gergo Gergov (21.17 per cent). In Vratsa, the race is between GERB’s Petya Avramova (34.4 per cent) and Nikolai Ivanov, the nominee of an initiative committee (34.82 per cent).
In Pleven, as in Rousse, the second-round contest is between GERB and the Blue Coalition. At the first round, GERB’s Dimitar Stoikov got 31.21 per cent and the Blue Coalition-backed Naiden Zelenogorski, the incumbent mayor, standing in the name of the Bulgarian New Democracy party, 29.88 per cent. The socialists, previously dominant in Pleven, ran third with 17.24 per cent. Rousse’s second round sees both finalists lacking natural political allies, but as with all run-offs, it is only a simple majority that is needed to win. With margins this close, however, majorities are seldom simple matters.
Controversial Sliven mayor and former football legend Yordan Lechkov, with 26.02 per cent, was runner-up to the socialists’ Kolyo Milev, who got 27.37 per cent on October 23.
In Sliven, there were 12 other candidates at the first round, who between them got 46.6 per cent of the vote, in wildly varying proportions. Given the allegations and dramas that have surrounded Lechkov for many months, GERB faces a serious risk of losing the town.
In Blagoevgrad, in previous years a socialist stronghold, GERB’s Atanas Kambitov picked up more than 40 per cent of the votes on October 23, almost double those given to the BSP’s Emil Kostadinov.
Veliko Turnovo sees a second-round contest between Daniel Panov of GERB (32.69 per cent) and Nikolai Iliev of the BSP (23.21 per cent). Lovech is being contested by Kornelia Marinova of GERB (35.34 per cent) and Mincho Kazandhiev (41.29 per cent); Pernik by Rositsa Yankieva-Kostadinova, the nominee of a socialist-led coalition (44.05 per cent) and GERB’s Irena Sokolova (36.06 per cent); and Stara Zagora between Zhivko Todorov of GERB (44.92 per cent) and the BSP’s Boicho Bivolarski (19.05 per cent).
Haskovo is between Georgi Ivanov, backed by a "Coalition for Haskovo", who got more than 40 per cent, and GERB’s Ivan Panayotov (21.92 per cent).
In Yambol, the run-off is between GERB’s Georgi Slavov (40.3 per cent) and the socialists’ Marieta Sivkova (18.69 per cent); in Razgrad, between Dencho Boyadzhiev (nominated by an initiative committee, and who got 33.44 per cent at the first round) and GERB’s Valentin Vassilev (32.31 per cent). In Silistra, the run-off is between GERB’s Yuliyan Naidenov (34.43 per cent) and Alexander Sabanov, who according to Central Election Commission results, pipped the socialist candidate by 0.05 per cent.