Just possibly, change is in the air in Bulgaria. Last Sunday's elections for the European Parliament-the first since the Balkan state joined the EU at the start of this year-have certainly given the country's political class food for thought. It is not so much the lowest voter turnout since transition began (28.6%) - that was down to foul weather, standard post-accession fatigue and a voter disenchantment with politics which was fairly well known already. It is more the distribution of what vote there was. If the voters were sending their rulers a message, it was an interesting one-alarming to some, gratifying to others.
Gratifying, above all, to Boiko Borisov, the mayor of Sofia, former top cop, and Bulgaria's most popular public figure in most opinion polls, who established his party-Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (CEDB)-just last year. He has been blustering ever since about the corruption of the current three-party coalition government and the need to get rid of it. Sunday was grist to his mill. CEDB's first electoral test was passed with flying colours. With 21.7% of the vote, Borisov's party was (by a whisker) the political force that performed best. He has not been slow to draw conclusions. Regular parliamentary elections, last held in 2005, are due in 2009. Borisov said they should be brought forward to coincide with local elections this autumn.
The outcome was less gratifying for Sergei Stanishev, the leftist who heads the ruling coalition. Having led CEDB in the opinion polls for most of the past year-and having led Bulgaria into the EU-his Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) slipped behind (21.4%) when it came to actual voting. Scandal probably explains something. Investigations on large-scale siphoning of funds from the capital's heating utility have been ongoing for almost a year and there have recently been allegations that Rumen Ovcharov, the BSP-aligned energy minister, has tried to put pressure on investigators to protect friends. Earlier this month, Stanishev impressed some with his decisiveness by sending Ovcharov on forced leave while investigations proceeded. Not decisive enough though, it seems.
The electoral news was, on the surface, pleasant for Ahmed Dogan, who heads the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF)-the junior partner in Stanishev's coalition. With less than 10% of the electorate, the MRF received 20.3% of the vote, a logical consequence of having a notoriously disciplined constituency in conditions of low turnout. Whether that is unmixed good news for the MRF or the government is another matter. For many ethnic Bulgarians-and not just the ultra-nationalists of the Ataka party-it will just confirm the belief that the MRF enjoys altogether too much influence.
It is mixed news too for Simeon II National Movement (SNM), also a coalition member. It won half the seats in the previous parliament and 54 out of 240 in the present one, so its 6.3% share of Sunday's vote shows how much it has come down-and will have disruptive effects on the pecking order in the coalition if the MRF (which has 34 MPs) is not restrained and tactful. On the other hand, the SNM had feared worse. Its vote secures one MEP, where many had predicted none.
As far as the squabbling factions of the traditional right are concerned, long divided between the hard-line Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria and the more moderate Union of Democratic forces, both failed to qualify for the European parliament. Leaderships have resigned in remorse and in preparation for an attempt at unification. Perhaps too late.
Finally, there are the ultra-nationalists of Ataka who, while not pleased with the MRF's performance, will have been fairly happy with their own. Their 14.4% is a reminder to the political class that virulent anti-establishment forces retain some strength and, ironically, secures a party with the most Euro-incorrect values three seats in the European parliament.
What effect will the results have on national politics is a moot point. In terms of power, the distribution of MEP seats is more or less irrelevant. As an indication of levels of support, shares of such a small turnout must be treated cautiously. And, above all, the ruling coalition enjoys an extremely comfortable majority in the national parliament. Indeed, with the BSP's 82 parliamentarians, the three coalition parties command more than two thirds of seats.
The worse things are, in terms of public opinion, the more inclined the incumbents may be to sit tight. Especially the SNM since it stands to lose most from an election any time soon. Borisov can call for elections. But it is not clear how he can make them happen, particularly as being such a new party, CEDB has no MPs of its own.
Both the BSP and the SNM are now faced with the task of improving their position ahead of local elections. Internal divisions will multiply. A cabinet reshuffle is now more or less certain and will involve more than just disposing of the hapless Ovcharov. The question is: how disruptive jockeying for power within the coalition will be, what cards can Borisov play to divide its members, could there be a possible rapprochement with elements in the BSP? It should be an interesting summer.