The Bulgarian Socialist Party (PSP) is in opposition and is expected to remain so during the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU. BSP is steadily he second political force, after Boyko Borissov’s GERB party, won the elections in 2009. Since, the socialists have had little chance to resurface on power.
The only exception was the presidential election last November, when Rumen Radev, a newcomer to politics, he won the poll by a landslide, obtaining close to 60%. The GERB candidate Tsetska Tsacheva obtained 36,1%. This is the first election Borissov lost in his nearly 10-year rule.
But that was indeed an incident in history and Radev, 54, is not a socialist. He entered Bulgarian politics on the socialist ticket, riding a wave of discontent with Borissov’s era, during which corruption remained deeply entrenched in society, as well as of concerns among voters over the refugee crisis and the situation in neighbouring Turkey.
This is why only five months later, when early parliamentary elections were held, the socialists were unable to keep the momentum of the presidential election landslide. Borissov’s GERB obtained 32,65% of the vote and 95 MPs, while BSP got 27,19% and 80 seats in parliament.
Radev has successfully kept his distances with BSP. Today he is in conflict with Borissov, described in this article:
The major difference between Borissov and the socialists is not in ideology. Both GERB and BSP could be called populist forces. The main difference is that Borissov has built himself a powerbase, while BSP have inherited a powerbase for which they have cared very little. Moreover, the BSP powerbase, in which the nostalgics of communism are numerous, is ageing.
Borissov has followed the model of Todor Zhivkov, the communist leader who led the country from 1956 to 1989, by creating a strata of more of a million people, dependent by their income from the ruling party.
Borissov was Zhivkov’s bodyguard when the communist leader was in house arrest. The two liked each other, and the small talk profited to the incumbent Prime Minister.
First female leader
The major big development in BSP in the recent couple of years has been the election of Kornelia Ninova as leader, on 8 May 2016. She became the first female leader in the BSP’s 126-year history, winning 395 votes from delegates at the party’s congress, with her uncharismatic predecessor Mihail Mikov coming second on 349.
Ninova faced the daunting task in rebuilding support for a party hit by divisions and which has seen several poor performances at general and local elections. In the 2014 parliamentary election, BSP was second, but it obtained only 18.3% of the vote, the worst result ever. Borissov’s GERB party won comfortably with 35.9%.
In theory, GERB and BSP could have crafted a grand coalition, after the March elections. But Ninova has strongly rejected such a hypothesis, judging it unhealthy for the future of her political force.
Another important development in recent months is that the alternative centre-left party ABV, established by the former President Georgi Parvanov, has virtually ceased to exist, after it obtained only 1,55% at the March election, although it run in coalition with another maverick force. In Bulgaria a party which fails to win a subsidy usually becomes extinct.
Ninova has been very vocal for lifting the EU sanctions against Russia, which undoubtedly is in tune with what her electorate wants to hear. Whenever the socialist have been on power, they have always behaved in line of the EU mainstream, so these declarations should be taken with a grain od salt.
Rejuvenating the party
In Bulgarian politics nobody is a virgin and the war of kompromats has spared no one. For Ninova the major difficulty is to withstand attacks from the “old guard” which she has sidelined, in an attempt to attract a younger electorate. At a party congress last February Ninova succeeded to pass decision, in a dramatic party vote, requiring BSP politicians with successive mandates in Parliament to step down, and also obliging BSP politicians to choose between the MP post and their leadership position in the party.
This has effectively changed the looks of the BSP, although critics say it has deprived the party of expertise. The BSP decision making forums are very democratic and no vote is decided in advance (unlike GERB). So Ninova has to watch for her back in the first place.
The next test
The next battle which would strengthen or debilitate Ninova is the election for mayor of Sofia, which would roughly coincide with the European elections in 2019. So the news is that Ninova is looking around for “another Radev”, someone who could take GERB by complete surprise, winning a second round and preparing for a knockout at an early election, soon after.