October 24 saw Bulgarians go to the polls in nation-wide local elections, with many observers predicting that the ballot would be a day of reckoning for the country's ruling party. Yet the voting was also noticeable for its low turnout and lack of decisive results.
As widely predicted, the mayoral race in the capital, Sofia, failed to produce a first round winner, with no candidate getting more than half the votes cast. The incumbent, independent Stefan Sofianski, finished in first place with an unimpressive 29.4% of the votes, followed closely by the Bulgarian Socialist Party candidate, Stoyan Alexandrov, with 27.9%. A run off ballot between the two will now be held on November 2. The turnout was a lamentable 35%.
Elsewhere in the country, runoffs are due next Sunday in 188 of a total of 263 municipalities, the Central Election Commission said October 28. Some 75 municipalities have elected mayors in the first round of the election, with 45% of the eligible 6.9m voters casting ballots in the first round. Bulgarians were asked to vote both for mayor and for local councillors at the same time, with some 400 000 ballots declared spoiled because the voters had failed to do so.
The municipalities that will go to a second round include some of the country's largest conurbations - such as Plovdiv and Burgas - along with Veliko Tarnovo, Pleven, Gabrovo, Yambol, Montana, Pazardzhik, Sliven, Blagoevgrad, Kjustendil, and Dobrich.
Nationwide, according to Gallup polling agency, the vote divided up 33% for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, 21% for the rightist Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), and 10% for the ruling National Movement Simeon II (NMSII).
The voting is seen as significant because it comes roughly half way through the NMSII's term of office and was therefore an opportunity to gauge popular feeling about the government's performance.
Yet the low turnout delivers - as always - an ambiguous message. Voter apathy had been widely foreseen in the days preceding the first round, with Alpha Research reporting beforehand that only a third of Sofia's citizens had even taken an off-and-on interest in the pre-election campaign.
The capital was also widely predicted to be a two horse race between Sofianski and Alexandrov. The former had been a consistent frontrunner, with 32-34% of Sofia residents backing the candidate's third consecutive term in office according to pre-election polls. When first elected as mayor in 1995, Sofianski had represented the then ruling party, the UDF. However, he broke from the party's ranks later, going on to form another centre-right grouping, the Union of Free Democrats (UFD). He has also announced his intention to try and build a centre-right coalition if re-elected.
The UDF candidate in Sofia, Nadezhda Mihailova, received 23% of the votes and has been eliminated from the run off. This defeat was undoubtedly helped along by the timely breaking of a financial scandal involving alleged mafia money in the Democracia Foundation, the party's official fund-raising arm.
News of this scandal could not have come at a worst time for Mihailova, who was a member of the foundation's managing board. She resigned this position after the scandal broke, citing "lack of sufficient information concerning its ownership" as her reason.
Putting aside old grudges though, on October 29, the UDF declared its support for Sofianski's candidacy in the second round. In return, Sofianski pledged to support a UDF drive calling for early general elections. The NMSII has so far not declared whom it will back for the second round.
Meanwhile, the Bulgarian Socialist Party candidate, Stoyan Alexandrov, has been running on a ticket aimed at making the murky intrigue of Sofia-based politics more "transparent" and providing its citizens with a more direct voice through the introduction of frequent referendums.
The voting nationwide has been good for the socialists, while Alexandrov's campaign in Sofia has been gaining momentum. In the capital, the socialists won the largest number of seats on the city council, though the UDF and UFD between them still have a majority. The ethnic Turkish party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), has also declared its support for Alexandrov, despite being a junior coalition partner in the NMSII centre-right administration.
Despite the low turnout, there is little avoiding the fact that the local elections represent a major rebuff to the NMSII government. The party failed to win any mayoral seats in the first round, while nationally showed around 10% of the vote. However, Prime Minister Saxe-Coburg dismissed the results, saying that local elections were always a different matter from national ones.
Yet NMSII parliamentary floor leader Stanimir Ilchev was more sanguine when he declared to the private BTV channel on October 28 that "The local election results reflect the judgement about the government... It is clear that it is not admired by the population."
Ilchev said this unpopularity was the result of the government's tough economic policies, which had rapidly eroded the 43% electoral support it had enjoyed on coming to office. One effect of this has also been erosion of NMSII party loyalty. Saxe-Coburg recently brought this problem to light at the opening of his party's national council conference in Sofia, when he lashed out at what he regarded as the "mavericks" within NMSII who, while in office, had lost their faith in the party's cause:
"It's a pity that in the face of the first difficulties that ruling National Movement Simeon II confronted," he said, "some of its members acted in a way that made me doubt if they ever believed in the movement's cause."
Finding loyal party men may prove increasingly difficult in the times ahead though, if NMSII cannot reverse the downward trend the local election results have so brutally confirmed.