Bulgaria’s Presidential Election: Uncertainty Looms
February 1, 2017
2016 Presidential Election Results
Bulgaria is a parliamentary representative republic, in which the president, elected by Bulgarian citizens, serves as the head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The President of Bulgaria is also responsible for determining and implementing the country’s foreign policy, including negotiating international treaties. The Prime Minister of Bulgaria serves as the head of government and is generally the leader of the party that wins the most votes in elections for the National Assembly, Bulgaria’s parliament. National Assembly members, including the prime minister, serve four year terms and are elected by party list in each of the country’s 28 administrative regions. The President may serve two five year terms, while there are no term limits for members of the National Assembly.
Presidential elections in Bulgaria take place in two rounds. The two candidates receiving the most votes in the first round proceed to a second round, with the winner of that round declared the president. The outgoing president of Bulgaria is Rosen Plevneliev, an independent and a former member of Bulgaria’s Communist Party. He was elected in Bulgaria’s 2011 presidential election and was supported by GERB (English: Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria), a center-right, pro-European party. In May 2016, Plevneliev announced that he would not run for a second term as president for personal reasons, after the death of his son. During his tenure in office, Plevneliev was popular and considered a successful reformer.
The first round of voting in Bulgaria’s 2016 presidential election took place on November 6. Twenty-one candidates were listed on the first round ballot. Rumen Radev, an independent supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), and Tsetska Tsacheva, a member of GERB, received the most votes and moved to the second round. Presidential elections in Bulgaria take place in two rounds. The two candidates receiving the most votes in the first round proceed to a second round, with the winner of that round declared the president.
Before entering the election, Tsacheva was a MP and the Speaker of the Bulgarian Parliament, a high position in the cabinet of GERB party leader and Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, from 2009 to early 2013 and again from October 2014 to the present. She was nominated by Borisov, apparently because of her relatively clean image compared to other senior GERB officials. The two other GERB politicians under consideration were Interior Minister Rumanya Bachvarova and Borisov’s deputy, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, but both had been tied to scandals. Bachvarova was allegedly involved in dealings with Turkey that led to a shortage of vaccines in Bulgaria, while Tsvetanov was tried for, but ultimately acquitted of, embezzling 50,000 Bulgarian levs from the budget of the Interior Ministry. Since her election to the Bulgarian Parliament, Tsacheva has kept a low profile, toeing the GERB party line. She ran on a pro-European platform, but promised that she would try to lift sanctions on Russia, which have raised prices in the Russian-energy-reliant Bulgarian economy. Her platform included pledges to limit the number of migrants and refugees crossing into the country from Turkey.
Rumen Radev, the former Commander of the Bulgarian Air Force, never demonstrated an interest in politics before entering the presidential race. Backed by the BSP, which has been described as “mildly Russophilic,” Radev has appeared at pro-Russian events, including one where the flags of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were torn apart. However, both Radev and the BSP distanced themselves from these actions. Radev has voiced support for Bulgaria’s membership in NATO and the EU and spoken of his pride in serving with NATO forces. His platform included promises to confirm friendship with Russia and to enforce European values, in addition to pledges to protect human rights, the environment, and the Bulgarian people. Like Tsacheva, he has called for an end to sanctions against Russia.
In the second round of voting, on November 13, 2016, Radev handily defeated Tsacheva, winning 59.35 percent of the vote to his opponent’s 36.17 percent. He is scheduled to take office as the President of Bulgaria in late January 2017. His Vice-President will be Iliana Iotova, a BSP Member of the European Parliament and former reporter and journalist, who had served as the BSP’s chief spin doctor before entering electoral politics.
Turmoil in the National Assembly
At present, GERB holds 83 seats in Parliament, in coalition with the Reformist Bloc’s (RB) 18 seats. The Patriotic Front, a nationalist, conservative, and Eurosceptic group which holds 17 seats, supports GERB, but is not in the coalition. BSP is the largest opposition party, followed by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which supports Turkish and Muslim minority rights. Also represented in the National Assembly are independents; the Russophilic, Eurosceptic, populist Attack party; the Russophilic, social democratic Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV); and four conservative, pro-European renegade members of RB who call themselves Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB).
In response to his party’s loss, Borisov resigned as prime minister on November 16, and GERB returned its mandate to President Plevneliev, leaving the National Assembly without an official government. Plevneliev then offered the BSP a chance to form a government, which party leader Korneliya Ninova refused. This move was politically calculated: if no government can be formed, then Bulgaria will head to the polls again for early National Assembly elections. BSP believes it would increase its share of seats in the National Assembly in such an election, riding the momentum of President Radev’s victory. Plevneliev was expected to offer a mandate to the Reformist Bloc. On December 9, however, two days before the offer was to come, RB publicly decided against attempting to form a government. Plevneliev now has little choice but to call for a snap election and risk BSP assuming a mandate as the majority government of Bulgaria.
A snap election in 2017 would be the third time Bulgarians voted for National Assembly members within the typical four year term. Bulgaria’s last National Assembly elections were held in 2014, and, before that, in 2013. These elections speak to the political turmoil in the country. Whether or not one more election can resolve the turmoil remains to be seen. What is certain is that the recent presidential election further exacerbated it and undid two years of relative political stability.
Radev’s election seems to have been more a response to government corruption under GERB than an endorsement of a pro-Russian foreign policy. Bulgaria is perceived as the most corrupt country in the EU, according to Transparency International. A study conducted by the European Parliamentary Research Service found that Bulgaria, by some metrics, loses 22 percent of its annual GDP to corruption. The Study for Democracy, a Sofia-based think tank, finds that “the number of people participating in corruption is now the highest in 15 years.” The hope is that Radev, as a political outsider with no government or commercial ties (a result of his entire life being spent in the military), represents an opportunity for the country to do away with its corruption problems. All eyes will be on his actions with regard to corruption, which he will hopefully address immediately. His prospects for successfully combating Bulgaria’s corruption are limited, especially in the short term: without a parliamentary government, the chances of the National Assembly passing anti-corruption legislation are small, and, even if BSP wins a snap election, that party is as much a part of the establishment as GERB, and politics as usual would, in all likelihood, resume. Though the office commands much authority in the realms of rhetoric and foreign policy, the President of Bulgaria is fairly limited in what he can do about domestic issues.
Though various media outlets have described Radev’s win as a victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the situation is not so clear cut. Radev has a long history of engagement with the West—he worked with NATO forces during his time in Bulgaria’s Air Force, did postgraduate work in the United States, and advocated buying new aircraft from European companies, not repair parts from Russia. His positions on foreign policy are not dissimilar from Tsacheva’s. Both stressed the importance of Bulgaria’s membership in the EU and NATO, and both said that they would work towards the removal of sanctions against Russia. The latter pledge is economically, not ideologically, motivated, contrary to the reports that use it as evidence of Radev’s Russophilia. In all likelihood, Bulgaria’s foreign policy will change very little after Radev takes over the presidency. This policy direction will likely occur even if the BSP wins control of the government in snap elections in 2017: it was, in fact, a BSP-led coalition government that, in 2006, signed an agreement with the United States stationing American troops at Bulgarian military bases.
It is possible that President Radev will orient Bulgaria towards Russia, but it is more likely that he will play Russia and the West against each other. Bulgaria is reliant on both—NATO guarantees its security, and Russian oil keeps its economy ticking. Almost all of Bulgaria’s energy comes from Russia, and the country has made a significant amount of money charging transit fees on Russian oil and gas. Those revenues are threatened by Russia’s weighing of two pipeline proposals, one of which crosses Bulgaria (South Stream) and the other bypasses Bulgaria and crosses Turkey (Turkish Stream or Turkstream); Radev thus has an economic incentive to maintain good Russo-Bulgarian relations. Rather than risk the benefits of relationships with NATO and the EU on the one hand and Russia on the other, Radev will accept the continued involvement of both sides in Bulgaria. This situation could very well turn Bulgaria into a proxy battlefield for competing Western and Russian interests. The country’s geographical location gives NATO access to the strategically important Black Sea, while Russia sees Bulgaria, a fellow Slavic and Eastern Orthodox state and former Warsaw Pact member, as belonging to its “sphere of influence.”
Radev takes over during a time of uncertainty, in his own country and across the world. But he, with or without a BSP government in the National Assembly, is unlikely to usher in any dramatic changes in Bulgaria’s geopolitical position.