Every opinion poll in Bulgaria in recent years shows Boiko Borissov’s GERB party as the one with by far the most support, and Prime Minister Borissov himself as the most-supported politician. Yet, on November 6, his party’s candidate ran second in first-round presidential elections, putting the future of his government in question.
Borissov is not having a very good year. First there was the debacle over the UN Secretary-General race, the succession of nominations of Irina Bokova and then Kristalina Georgieva, ending in failure. Now Borissov has staked his resignation on the outcome of the second-round runoff between GERB’s presidential candidate Tsetska Tsacheva and socialist-backed Roumen Radev.
For all the pre-eminent place that Borissov has held in Bulgarian politics for years, he is not invulnerable, in part because of his own missteps. Six years ago, there was the Roumyana Zheleva fiasco, when Borissov’s nominee for the European Commission, then his foreign minister, had to be withdrawn because of a notably underwhelming European Parliament hearing.
Before anyone claims that Borissov seems to have woman trouble, in the sense of his nominations of women turning turtle – and against the background of his frequently-stated preference for women in public office – the Zheleva episode was rescued when Kristalina Georgieva was nominated to replace Zheleva as Bulgaria’s European Commission candidate.
Georgieva went on to become a highly-respected European Commissioner, even earning a significant promotion in her second term in office, as vice-president of the Juncker Commission, with the EU budget and human resources portfolio.
But the Georgieva lightning did not strike twice when it came to the UN Secretary-General candidacy.
Early in the year 2016, Borissov bowed to pressure from minority coalition partner, socialist breakaway party ABC, to nominate Bokova – the scion of a communist dynasty – to be Bulgaria’s pick in the UN race. It was a politically-awkward move, Bokova’s identity out of kilter with GERB’s centre-right orientation.
ABC, led by former Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Georgi Purvanov, got Borissov to play ball by threatening to withdraw its support from his government. About three months after Bokova was in place as the UN candidate, Purvanov took ABC out of the government deal anyway.
In parallel with all this, in political circles in Bulgaria it was known that Georgieva was interested in being the candidate UN chief. Yet the Bokova candidacy was allowed to remain in place, even while official Bulgaria’s campaign for her hardly seemed seized with great enthusiasm.
The belated withdrawal of support for Bokova, and the endorsement of Georgieva, ended only with Bulgaria falling between two stools. Within a few weeks, Georgieva had quit the European Commission anyway, to take up the post of World Bank chief executive. Georgieva headed for the Washington DC headquarters of the Bank, and Borissov was left with considerable egg on his face.
The Bulgarian presidential election moves by Borissov seem to have been driven more by emotion than anything else. And not a little arrogance too. Borissov nominated Tsacheva practically at the last minute, and not a few observers were astonished at GERB choosing a candidate who may gently be described as not a very charismatic figure, and who did not figure as among the top ranks of popularity among Bulgaria’s politicians.
Having staked his government’s future on a first-round victory for Tsacheva (though Borissov flip-flopped on this, subsequently), GERB followed up the choice of a lacklustre candidacy with a lacklustre, by-the-numbers campaign. In repetitive and boring campaign messages, Tsacheva was handed a campaign predicated on approval for Borissov’s government.
Tsacheva criss-crossed Bulgaria for a month, repeating the same message everywhere, irrespective of the audience and demographic, about how even GERB’s detractors had to acknowledge the achievements of Borissov’s government. This message was destined to make the presidential election a referendum on the government’s performance, and to a large extent, on Borissov himself.
Add to this the prolonged set of debacles about the amended Electoral Code, the addition of compulsory voting, of a “I don’t support anyone” option on the ballot, and then the necessity for last-minute repairs to the code, given constitutional and practical concerns.
This phase has ended with a slap in the face for Borissov. Early interpretations of the November 6 vote are partly that his electorate was insufficiently inspired by Tsacheva to go to the polls, that they may have opted for “I don not support anyone” as a protest vote, and that some defected, to Radev, or to the anti-immigrant assertive messages of the ultra-nationalist United Patriots ticket.
Now Borissov says that if Tsacheva does not win the second round, he will resign, opening the way for Bulgaria to hold early parliamentary elections. No prediction about the second-round outcome is safe.
But it has become clear that Borissov’s missteps, from not opting for Georgieva at the outset in the UN race, to picking an uninspiring presidential candidate, are turning a year that could have been a steady series of successes for Borissov into one that could end with him out of office, and that could leave Bulgaria’s electorate frustrated at the performance of a politician who – above all – had promised the country stability./IBNA