Ivailo Kalfin, the highest profile Bulgarian member of the European Parliament, announced yesterday (13 January) that he was leaving the group of MEPs from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) over which he presided. Kalfin is expected to run for the EU elections on a separate ticket, a move which could split Bulgarian centre-left voters.
On his blog, Kalfin announced he was leaving the BSP chiefly because of the group's “political compromise” to keep alive a minority government coalition in Bulgaria thanks to the support from the extremist Ataka party.
The news created a political earthquake in Bulgaria.
Kalfin is highly regarded in Bulgaria for steering the country’s EU accession in 2007, when he was deputy prime minister and foreign minister. He was a candidate to become the country's president in 2011 but narrowly lost to the incumbent head of state Rosen Plevneliev by 47.4% to 52.6%. His performance was largely seen as a success however, as the media at the time was overwhelmingly in favour of Plevneliev, a candidate supported by then Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.
BSP came out second from the Bulgarian national election in May 2013 but ended up forming a government with the party that came third – the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), representing the ethnic Turk minority (see background). Both parties had 120 seats in Parliament, exactly half the total number, but the government so far survived thanks to the tacit support of the Ataka party, which obtained 23 seats.
Ataka, or "attack" in English, is a nationalist party founded by former journalist Volen Siderov in 2005. It has been criticised for ultra-right racist anti-Muslim and anti-Turkish statements, as well as its use of far-left violent anti-capitalist rhetoric.
In his blogpost, Kalfin criticises the BSP for its tacit coalition agreement with Ataka, saying the political price is unacceptable. Kalfin has also been an outspoken critic of the government's decision, backed in June by Parliament, to appoint Delyan Peevski as leader of the country’s State Agency for National Security (DANS). Peevski, the owner of the New Bulgarian media group, is considered a shady power broker.
The 14 June vote in the Bulgarian parliament which installed Peevski as chief of DANS took the country by surprise and unleashed protests calling for the government to resign. The protests have not stopped since, despite the fact that Peevski withdrew from the position.
Peevski, 33, is a member of parliament from the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a political party representing the Turkish minority in Bulgaria and the main political ally of BSP.
Kalfin expressed his political position in a letter addressed to the BSP President Sergei Stanishev, who is also leader of the Party of European Socialists (PES).
“I am faced with the absurd choice between my ideas and the party leadership, and this choice is more and more incompatible. As always, I have my own long-term answer to this choice, and it is in favour of my ideas,” Kalfin wrote.
EurActiv briefly spoke to Kalfin, who said the BSP remained a leading political force in the country but could no longer represent all opinions of the centre-left electorate.
“Major mistakes were made [by the BSP leadership] recently, such as the appointment of Peevski, the coalition policy, the unclear relationship with Ataka. This basically eclipsed the major wrongdoings of GERB [the former government of Boyko Borissov] and created morale problems for many centre-left minded people,” Kalfin said.
Both Stanishev and Kalfin are well-known personalities in Brussels. In October 2012, Stanishev was elected PES leader for a two-an-a-half year term. As for Kalfin, he played a major role in the talks between European institutions for the bloc's 2014-2020 budget.
But the developments in Bulgaria, including the BSP's relation with Ataka and the attempt to appoint Peevski, have reportedly prompted the first PES Vice-President Jean-Christophe Cambadélis to openly criticise Stanishev. According to EurActiv sources, centre-left officials in France and Germany did not approve Stanishev’s choice as PES leader, seeing it as too risky in the perspective of the EU elections.
In Bulgaria, Nidal Algafari, a spin doctor close to the BSP, said that Kalfin would run for the European elections on a list backed by former President Georgi Parvanov. The latter, a former BSP leader until his election as head of state in 2002 (he served two mandates until 2012), makes no secret that he wants to oust Stanishev from the BSP leadership.
Before Kalfin threw a spanner in the works, BSP was widely expected to win the EU elections in Bulgaria, leaving the centre-right GERB party second. However, with the centre-left electorate now left to choose between two lists, BSP is likely to be split and relegated to second or even third rank.
Georgi Kadiev, a BSP politician known for often expressing politically incorrect points of view, said that Kalfin’s move was “bad for the BSP, but good for Bulgaria”.
Bulgaria's Socialist-led government took office on 29 May, ending months of political impasse but lacking broad backing. Plamen Oresharski, a nonpartisan former finance minister, is prime minister.
At the parliamentary election, held on 12 May, the party GERB (Citizens for a European development of Bulgaria) of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov emerged as the largest party with 97 of the 240 seats.
But as GERB proved incapable of finding a coalition partner, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which obtained 84 seats, formed a cabinet with the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a mainly ethnic Turkish force, which obtained 36 seats.
As they control just 120 MPs, the two governing forces BSP and DPS enjoy the tacit support of Ataka, a nationalist and xenophobic force, which obtained 23 seats.