Bulgarian presidential elections explained… by one of the candidates

Ivailo Kalfin [Georgi Gotev]

Former MEP Ivailo Kalfin, a familiar face in Brussels, which he visits regularly as a member of the Monti group on the future EU budget, told euractiv.com about the upcoming presidential elections in Bulgaria on 6 November, where he is one of 21 candidates.

The main candidates at the elections are parliament speaker Tsetska Tsacheva, representing the centre-right party GERB of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, and former air force general Rumen Radev, for the opposition socialist BSP party.

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A total of 21 candidates are running for the job. Apart from Tsacheva and Radev, the more prominent are Kalfin, representing a small centre-left party ABV led by the former President Georgi Parvanov, Krassimir Karakachanov, leader of the United Patriots alliance, including two nationalist parties, and Traicho Traikov, representing the Reformist Bloc, a small centre-right force in coalition with GERB.

Although his role is mostly ceremonial, the Bulgarian president is elected by popular vote, using the two-round system. Opinion polls show indicate that Tsacheva and Radev will make it to the runoff, although the campaign has only started and surprises are possible.

EURACTIV asked Kalfin to comment on expectations that the elections are to be decided by these two large parties, and that GERB represents the pro-Western electorate, while the BSP’s electorate is considered nostalgic for communism, is and pro-Russian.

“These are stereotypes. Both large parties in Bulgaria, Boyko Borissov’s party and the socialist party have acute internal problems. The ruling party GERB has one-third of the seats in government, in fact, this is a minority government, and in order to stay in power they need to make concessions, compromises and steps backwards,” Kalfin said, adding that these elections will be extremely difficult for GERB.

Regarding the socialist party, he said that “for reasons known only to their leadership”, they refused to have a large coalition for the presidential elections, which would have included ABV. On the other hand, BSP didn’t put forward one of their politicians, but took a general whose name was not familiar to the public.

“They did hide behind an independent initiative committee, suggesting a general, which is a very strange move. He’s not a politician, and the socialists say this is his biggest quality, that he was not involved in decision-making in the previous years,” Kalfin said.

A passion for the military

Since GERB put forward an admiral as candidate for Vice President, EURACTIV asked Kalfin to explain Bulgarian parties’ fascination with the military. Boyko Borissov himself has the rank of general, from the Interior Ministry.

“In the democratic world when the generals take power, it means a coup d’état normally”, Kalfin said humorously. He added: Having a general from the police forces as Prime Minister and an army general for President would be a little too much for Bulgaria.”

Asked why he personally decided to run for president, Kalfin said that the ABV tried to build a large coalition of centre-left and centrist forces, but unfortunately the socialist party, after three months of negotiations, decided to go its own way.

As a result, ABV together with other small political parites decided to participate in the elections, basing themselves “not so much on a coalition agreement, but on the personal qualities of the candidate”.

Indeed, Kalfin has a personal prestige which makes him rank higher than the political force he represents. Asked about that, he said:

“That is true, I ran for the last election for President and I lost it with a very small difference.” Indeed, in 2011 Kalfin obtained 47.4% of the vote against 52.6% for the now ongoing president Rossen Plevneliev.

At that time, Kalfin was a candidate for the BSP, which he left 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.

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“Usually at presidential elections in Bulgaria opinion polls are inaccurate, because people answer the polls according to their political affiliation, but they tend to vote for particular candidates,” he said.

The role of the media

Asked how he expected to compete with the two large parties which have much more financial means, Kalfin said that for a small party, this was indeed a handicap, especially for securing a presence in the media.

“Media are largely paid in Bulgaria. I guess this is not an issue only for the Bulgarian media. Media in Europe in the last years are facing scarcity of resources, of income from advertising or other sources of revenue. When there is an election campaign, this is the golden time for them”, he said, adding that this was a “bad sign for democracy”.

Another problem specific to the Bulgarian media, Kafin said, is that most of them were owned by “people who have another business”, which made them biased.

Asked if the ruling party GERB was avoiding political debates between the candidates, Kalfin said:

“Not only the ruling party. The two main parties are avoiding having debates. There will be very few of them until the end of the campaign. They are trying to minimise them, and as a result the whole campaign is very much in the dark.”

Asked about the various setbacks for Bulgaria with abandoned geopolitical energy projects, which result in paying huge fines to Russia, Kalfin lamented that Bulgaria had “lost its role in the region” since Borissov took power in 2009, and that it had damaged its relations with Russia.

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Indeed, the outgoing president Plevneliev has on several occasions made statements which have achieved nothing but antagonising Russia. In comparison, Borissov has been much more appeasing, refusing, for instance, to participate in an effort to beef up the NATO military presence in the Black Sea, an idea which appeared after a visit of Plevneliev to Ukraine.

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“We don’t feel threatened and we don’t see the Black Sea as a theatre for increased military tensions,” he said, adding that having a president and a prime minister who speak different languages at the international scene “makes Bulgaria weak”.

Asked if his political force could be seen as pro-Russian, as commentators in Bulgaria frequently label political forces as “pro-Russian” or “anti-Russian”, he said:

“This is a very insane division. We like very much divisions in Bulgaria. Pro-Russian and anti-Russian is not the line which has to be drawn in Bulgaria. Bulgaria has its national interest and part of this interest is to have good relations with Russia, and this is not in contradiction with Bulgaria’s membership in the EU and NATO.”

He added that Bulgaria should be the voice explaining that the EU needs a strategic partnership with Russia, and that the last thing Europe needs is more tensions, including military tensions.

“This may be in the interest of countries that are far away from Europe,” he said.

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