With a month to go until Bulgaria elects 18 Members of the European Parliament for the first time, campaigning has stepped up a gear, with the ruling socialists announcing bold plans for the budget and a new party led by the mayor of Sofia expected to perform strongly. Interest in the May 20 poll had to this point been muted, but parties and European Parliamentarians alike are urging Bulgarians to vote, setting the scene for the general election in two year's time.
Currently, Bulgaria is represented in the European Parliament by 18 politicians nominated by the Bulgarian National Assembly.
Last week, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the leading member of the ruling coalition, launched an ambitious programme.
The BSP, which shares power with the National Movement For Simeon II (NMSII) and the largely Turkish-minority Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), laid out plans to improve pension payments and the wages of public sector workers. Public sector wages would be increased 10% per annum until 2009 and pensions would rise 10% this year under the plan. The second move was a re-iteration of a statement made by the party in February, which caused tensions in the coalition as the partners had previously agreed on an increase of 8.5%. This year, pensioners, who are a key source of votes for the BSP, have often protested, calling for a raise in pensions.
The party also targeted families with proposals to increase paternity leave and raise child benefit to 250 leva ($174) from 200 leva ($139) for the first child and to 600 leva ($418) for the second.
Other proposals included an increase in the minimum wage to 200leva ($139), an increase of 20 leva, and encouraging the use of part-time workers. The BSP also said they hoped to cut taxes "if possible", and increase the social insurance contribution paid by employers and employees from 6% to 8%.
On macroeconomic policy, the BSP outlined plans to reduce unemployment to less than 8% by the end of next year. The Socialists also championed the construction of the Burgas-Alexandropoulos and Burgas-Vlore pipelines, which will carry Russian oil from the Black Sea port of Burgas to the Aegean and Ionian Seas respectively, bypassing the crowded straits of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles in Turkey.
Local press reported that the BSP had one eye on the upcoming European elections and another on the next general election, due in 2009. Critics said the promise of higher spending and lower taxation was unrealistic, but the BSP said that sustained growth made the plans feasible.
A poll published this week by the National Centre for Studying Public Opinion put the BSP in the lead for the European election, with an estimated 23% of the vote, closely followed by centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), a new party founded by popular Sofia Mayor Boyko Borisov. Borisov, former minister of interior whose popularity is linked to fighting organised crime, one of the biggest issues in the country, said he wanted to turn Bulgaria into "a stable island in the Balkans" and that he expected to top the poll. GERB stated it aims at tackling corruption, promoting family values and securing Bulgaria's energy independence.
The MRF are on 8% level, pegging with ultranationalist party Ataka, which garnered around a quarter of votes in last year's presidential election run-off, although some of its election broadcasts was banned due to personal attacks on rivals and ethnic Turks. The NMSII and the centre-right United Democratic Forces both stand on 4%. One observer told OBG he expected the MRF to perform above the predicted 8% as its voter base is highly loyal and consistently turns out to vote, which means it would benefit from a low turnout. Some fear a strong performance by the MRF would cause resentment and an increase in ethnic tensions due to the perception that the Muslim population is "over-represented".
Turnout was predicted at 35%, translating the lack of enthusiasm for European issues in Bulgaria. A recent media report claimed that "political debate related to Europe has a minor role" in the country. Recent plans to put the five Bulgarian nurses on death row in Libya up for election as a show of support for their plight was deemed unconstitutional. Another issue that has been drawing much attention has been the closure of two reactors at Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), which was a pre-condition of Bulgaria's membership of the EU, but remains very unpopular in Bulgaria.
European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering remains upbeat about the election and urged Bulgarians to vote. "I would like to call on all Bulgarian citizens to take part in this important vote. The first elections to the European Parliament will be a further significant step on Bulgaria's transformation and integration into the EU. By voting you have the opportunity to shape those decisions."