After a second round of voting in the Bulgarian municipal elections, right-of-centre candidates managed to hang on in the capital and some of the largest cities, while the left scored well overall. Meanwhile, the results are being seen by many political analysts, both within Bulgaria and abroad, as playing an important role in setting the tone for what is expected to occur during the 2005 general election.
According to the Central Electoral Committee, the fourth consecutive set of local elections held in Bulgaria since the fall of the communist regime in 1989, saw the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) finish top of the list of run-off candidates, with 121 mayors elected. They were followed in second place by the rightist Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) with 30, while in third place was the predominantly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF).
Significantly, limping in a poor fourth was Bulgaria's ruling party, the National Movement Simeon II (NMSII).
However, Bulgarian business analysts were quick to counter concerns over any political instability in the country as a result of this dismal showing by the government, seeing this as no surprise.
"What's more interesting," Radoslav Krastev, chief financial analyst for ISI Emerging Markets, told OBG, "is that despite all the hype, in the end the socialists did not do as well as many expected - essentially ruling out the possibility of early elections."
They also forecast that in the face of fragmented opposition forces, the ruling party would in all likelihood finish off its term in office.
In Sofia, the incumbent, Stefan Sofianski, met local pollsters' expectations in procuring a third term in office by garnering the support of 53.7% of local residents. His opponent, the BSP's Stoyan Alexandrov, trailed behind with 44%. Sofianski's second round success has been widely attributed to the last minute formation of a rightist coalition, with the UDF the first to join this, following their humiliating defeat in the first round of Sofia's municipal elections, held over the weekend of October 25-26.
The party leader and Sofia mayoral candidate, Nadezhda Mihailova, who imprudently sealed her political fate by vowing to resign from the party's leadership if she were defeated at the polls, firmly threw her support behind the incumbent mayor's bid for office after agreeing to cast aside long-standing political rivalries. When asked by the party's rank and file to justify her decision at a press conference, Mihailova declared that the growing influence of the Bulgarian left was the main threat. "For us the greatest danger would be the return of the Socialist party to power," she said.
Other parties responding to the rightist-inspired call to arms to re-elect Mayor Sofianski were members of the Democratic Party, the civil movement, Gergyovden, as well as the ruling NMSII and the Agrarian Party. Meanwhile, in a controversial move, the junior party within the ruling coalition of the NMSII, the ethnic Turkish MRF, broke with political convention by endorsing Stoyan Alexandrov of the BSP.
During the first round of the municipal elections, the socialists had managed to win in four cities - Varna, Stara Zagora, Razgrad and Silistra. In the wake of their success and days before the formation of the rightist coalition, the leader of the BSP, Sergey Stanishev proudly declared that his party's strong standing in the first round served as a clear indication that the BSP was well on its way in positioning itself as the party of choice in the upcoming 2005 general election.
"A left government in Bulgaria is becoming more and more necessary and we are getting ready for this," he declared after the results had been announced.
Judging from a number of surveys indicating that a large proportion of Bulgarians - approximately three quarters of the overall population- are of the opinion that the government in power has failed in its promises to substantially increase Bulgarians' lowly standards of living, it appears that the BSP's upbeat electoral predictions are not that far off the mark. Moreover, the BSP's popularity continues to grow in light of the widespread nostalgia for the former communist days that has gripped the nation; a time when the vast bulk of the population was provided with both stable forms of employment and housing and crime was kept under control.
This feeling is particularly strong in rural areas. According to third quarter figures for 2003 released by the Social Ministry, while Sofia boasts a jobless rate of only 3.76%, rural-based communities have been known to experience jobless rates in the 30% range.
If the results of these municipal elections are to serve as an advanced indication of how the Bulgarian electorate will vote in 2005, ahead of the country's anticipated entry into the EU in 2007, the ruling party will no doubt face an uphill struggle in the coming months as it struggles to complete its first term in office. Of particular political significance was the fact that none of the mayoral candidates openly endorsed by the NMSII were elected during the first round. Adding insult to injury, the NMSII's candidate for the mayor of Sofia, the current Minister of Youth and Sports, Vasil Ivanov, ranked fifth amongst the candidates and finished with a pitiful 6% of the vote. As a means of deflecting criticism from his political bosses, Ivanov assumed complete responsibility not only for his own political misfortunes, but for those of his party in a press statement that he released to the public.
"I personally take responsibility for the Sofia performance of the National Movement Simeon II," the statement declared. "If there is to be a decision that somebody has to take the blame for the performance of the NMSII, let it be me."
Despite their embarrassing performance during the first round, the prime minister's party did fare somewhat better in the second round by capturing two district centres: Sliven and Dobrich. In Sliven, the legendary football hero, Yordan Lechkov, was able to pull ahead and beat his socialist opponent, Ivan Slavov, who had finished the first round well ahead. Lechkov's campaign had received a life-saving boost from a broad rightist coalition that included not only the NMSII, but the UDF and the Agrarian Party.
At a press conference following the release of the first exit polls from Sunday's run-off vote, the government made a last-ditch attempt to spin the results of the local elections to its political advantage by saying the results demonstrated that "the two-party mould had been broken at the local level". While this type of political manoeuvring has a higher success rate in the West, Bulgarians are clearly not impressed. As Prime Minister Saxe-Coburg continues to fight for his party's political survival, it seems it will take a miracle for him to achieve anything resembling the landslide victory he attained during the 2001 general election.
Yet he also seems likely to finish his term, particularly given the fragmented condition of the rest of the centre-right.
"The prime minister will be able to finish his mandate," says Krastev, "but what happens to his party in 2005 is really anyone's guess. As of now, the markets haven't really experience any substantial change, creating the impression that it's simply business as usual."