With the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) announcing last weekend that it would withdraw Bulgarian troops from Iraq if it were to win this year's elections, the curtains have now been raised on the 2005 political season. The statement also confirmed most analysts' view that the first half of the new year will be dominated by the parliamentary ballot due in the summer. Yet it is likely to be more bread-and-butter economic issues, rather than the fortunes of war in Mesopotamia, that will decide voters' minds.
BSP leader Sergei Stanishev told the local media over the weekend that although his party had at first supported peacekeeping operations in Iraq, it now felt the country had been misled by the government. According to local analysts, the public mood is largely against the current deployment of some 500 Bulgarian troops, who are stationed in Iraq under Polish command.
Yet, while such a policy shift by the BSP differentiates the party clearly from the current government's position in this key foreign policy area, analysts in Sofia do not generally think that the battle for the hearts and minds of the Bulgarian people this year will revolve around Iraq.
Intense budget adoption debates in December 2004 bore witness to the fact that all the parties recognise the importance of social issues, such as poverty, the minimum wage and unemployment, which are instead expected to take centre stage in the weeks before the election.
While the current government under Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg continues to receive praise for its fiscal prudence and economic performance from abroad, domestically, it must brace itself for fresh scrutiny on whether it has fulfilled its central pledge made at the 2001 election - namely, to radically improve people's living standards within 800 days.
Some 400 days after the 800-day period expired, the National Movement for Simeon II (NMSII), the majority party in the coalition which swept to power in 2001, continues to enjoy low, albeit improving, approval ratings. High expectations, analysts say, have left a large part of the Bulgarian population disaffected and yet to be persuaded that life in Bulgaria is, indeed, getting better.
Meanwhile, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) enjoys the highest approval ratings, buoyed by its image as a party able to address the concerns of transition reform victims, such as pensioners, low-paid workers and the unemployed.
However, while drawing on a large pool of voters, the BSP's victory in the elections cannot be assured until it finds a fresh appeal among progressive urban middle class voters. Without these, the BSP will not be able to get the necessary majority in Bulgaria's 240-seat single-chamber parliament.
Despite, trying to model itself upon other social democratic parties in Europe, stressing its reformist and business friendly credentials, the BSP has also not managed to exculpate itself in the public mind from the banking system and currency crash in 1997, which happened during its watch.
In an effort to address this lack of confidence in the party's financial and business acumen, BSP leader Sergei Stanishev held a series of meetings with international bankers and business community representatives in October 2004, signalling that the socialists are keen to restore public confidence in their ability to manage the economy.
Meanwhile, the BSP's standing continues to be bolstered by the popularity of its former leader, current President Georgi Parvanov. He continues to rank as the most popular politician in the country, albeit overtaken at times by Boiko Borissov, the popular chief secretary of the Interior Ministry.
However, fearing the return of the socialists, the right-wing parties, led by Nadezhda Mikhailova from the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), appealed on several occasions last year to the ruling NMSII and the ethnic Turkish party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), to form a centre-right election alliance in order to keep the socialists out.
While accepting in theory that such a political alliance is possible, both the NMSII and MRF, analysts argue, are likely to keep their options open until after the elections. Traditional kingmakers, the ethnic Turkish party, with its seasoned leader Ahmed Dogan, is least likely to tie its hands, leaving the field wide open for many post election scenarios and negotiations among parties. Most, however, expect that no single party will be able to form a government on its own.
However, if a centre-right government is to emerge this year, the right-wing parties themselves have to overcome internal challenges to presenting a united front. The right-wing parties were dogged by continuous infighting during the whole of 2004. Former prime minister and UDF leader Ivan Kostov re-emerged on the political scene last year, causing a rift by calling on current UDF leader Mikhailova to resign. While Mikhailova survived the challenge, in the end it has left the right wing of the political spectrum looking bitter and divided.
Prime Minister Saxe-Coburg himself will continue to face the task in 2005 of keeping his party united. Having suffered several defection blows in 2003, which left his coalition government without a majority, his government had to make trade-offs with its former colleagues, the New Time parliamentary group, to get the budget through parliament in December 2004.
Nonetheless, seen as the most likely prime ministerial candidate in a centre-right or even centre-left coalition, Saxe-Coburg has succeeded - contrary to many predictions - in preventing his party from sliding into disintegration and his government into collapse. Despite criticism by some for not dismissing allegedly incompetent ministers and delegating too much decision making to his deputies, Saxe-Coburg emerged much stronger at the end of 2004. Some analysts argue that both Saxe-Coburg and his party have matured politically, making them much more resilient than expected.
However, inevitably, 2005 is going to be rocky for both the prime minister and his party. Most analysts agree though that at least for the next few years, Bulgaria's path is set - and no matter which government assumes power in summer 2005, the country will not be derailed from its EU accession track, economic growth and improving business environment.