The impressive performance of the centre-right Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria Party (GERB) in the municipal elections held on October 28 have confirmed speculation that the party is a growing force in Bulgarian politics. In three cities GERB candidates were elected mayor without going to run-off elections and the party performed well across the country. As the parties attempt to re-configure political alliances, however, the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) maintains a strong electoral base.
Incumbent mayor of Sofia Boyko Borissov, leader of GERB, will continue in office after receiving 53.73% of the vote. While many analysts had predicted Borissov would remain in office, most had predicted the race would go to a second round run-off. By gaining over half of the Sofia votes, Borissov demonstrated the popularity of the party he founded last year. Voter turnout was 30.1%, with Martin Zaimov, candidate of the rightist Union of Democratic Forces (ODS) and Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB) coming in second with 18.7% of the votes cast and BSP candidate Brigo Asparuhov attaining 16.54%.
There was also success for GERB in Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second-largest city according to official population figures, where the party's candidate, Slavcho Atanassov, received 56.1% of the vote. In the northeastern town of Dobrich, population 94,000, the GERB candidate and incumbent mayor Detelina Nikolova won 64.82% of the votes. Near Dobrich, in the city of Burgas, GERB's candidate Dimitar Nikolov also polled well, securing 45.8% of votes, and faces a run off .
These results clearly demonstrate the nationwide appeal of a party that has no seats in parliament and owes a great deal of its success to the popularity of its leader. Borissov, once Sofia's leading policeman, trainer of the national karate team and chief secretary of the interior ministry, has earned a reputation as a strong leader who gets things done. His tough persona has made him particularly popular among Sofia's female population.
At a press conference following the vote, Borissov said the vote showed citizens' confidence in GERB's "pragmatic programme for Sofia's development, which is strictly tailored to the Sofia City Hall's budget." As the leader of a party that advocates a small state and a balanced budget, he said his main priorities were to make the city cleaner and improve the road infrastructure. Refuse collection and inner city congestion are two of Sofia's ongoing problems.
Although it is widely speculated that Borissov's next goal will be to gain the position of prime minister, he refused to confirm these claims when questioned by media. He also denied suggestions he would provoke street demonstrations in an effort to force early elections in the event of a GERB victory, as some analysts had predicted. Some analysts believed GERB would try to capitalise on its current popularity to gain parliamentary seats in an election.
The results of the municipal elections were met with mixed reactions by members of the BSP. Asparuhov said his defeat was not a personal one but one indicative of "the deep crisis that the socialist party finds itself in." Rumen Ovachrov, head of the BSP in Sofia said he was surprised by the severity of the defeat.
Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev, leader of the BSP, was defiant. He pointed out that nationwide, the BSP won 21% of the vote and 1100 municipal council seats compared to GERB's 17.4% and 920 seats. The BSP candidate Kiril Yordanov also won comfortably in Varna, officially the country's de facto third city in terms of population. He said that if Borissov believed he could call snap parliamentary elections it was "time [he] took off his rose-tinted glasses".
While early elections now look very unlikely, public sentiment indicates GERB could do very well at the next general elections scheduled for 2009. A poll in September by Sofia based research group Alpha Research showed that 22.2% of Bulgarians polled would support GERB in a parliamentary election, compared to 16.8% for the BSP.
Many believe that following its success, GERB will search for political allies that can help it manoeuvre for power in parliamentary elections. Observers suggest the most likely scenario is that GERB could seek to strengthen ties with the centre right National Movement for Stability and Progress Party (NDSP), led by former king Simeon Saxe-Coburg. Given GERB's strong opposition to the influence of the Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a party mainly based on support of the Bulgarian Turkish minority, the latter party could well move closer to the BSP.
However, some analysts have said that the resounding success of such a new party demonstrates a fundamental weakness in the Bulgarian political system. One political analyst told OBG, "The result shows the continued appeal of new parties untainted by the political establishment. In 2001 the NDSP won the elections with a party that had barely been in existence for two months. Bulgarian voters have a recurring habit of assuming corruption or incompetence in their ruling parties. The longer it takes for parliamentary elections to come, the more chance there is Borissov will make a mistake and lose popularity. It should be remembered that the BSP has a strong hardcore following."
The low voter turnout in the Sofia election was criticised by former Mayor Konstantin Papazov. Allegations of vote buying by having voters produce mobile phone pictures of their completed ballots in return for payment was also highlighted.