Whilst many of the countries in Southeast Europe and the Balkans settle into life with their new governments, Bulgaria is just beginning to prepare for the coming general elections.
The opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) has named 14 parties, including the Social Democratic Party and some civic movements, with which it plans to sign pre-election agreements in the run-up to the parliamentary poll due in June 2001.
The nucleus of the so-called New Left Alliance formalized on 7 January includes the BSP, holding 58 of the 240 seats in the present Parliament, the Social Democratic Party, the Movement of Social Democrats (dominated by former members of the Euroleft Party) and the United Labor Block. According to the agreement, the coalition's long-term goal is to evolve into single party.
"The formation of the New Left means that the left parties want power," BSP leader Georgui Parvanov told journalists in Sofia on 7 January. "The alliance is based on the values and principles of the modern European left and Social Democracy," he added.
The Movement for Rights and Freedoms—the other main leading opposition party—represents Bulgaria's Turkish minority (some nine percent of the total population), has not been included in the new opposition group. Nonetheless, Parvanov has declared that "the MRF is our strategic partner and we are discussing the possibilities of a post-election agreement."
Partnerships for victory
Partnership in the upcoming parliamentary ballot is the only way in which left-oriented parties stand to increase their share of the vote from the 24 percent, which they garnered in the 1997 elections. Running alone, chances of victory are minimal.
In a recent poll, only 13 percent of respondents said they would vote for the BSP and two to three percent said they would vote for the Social Democrats. Some six percent said they would vote for the MRF. In a similar poll last July, the BSP's popularity rating was 20 percent.
The New Left Alliance, however, has a tough task ahead. Despite what observers perceive as deliberate efforts last summer to undermine the popularity of the ruling Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), current support remains steady. According to opinion polls last July, UDF was backed by 24 percent of the population in comparison with a present estimation of between 20 and 26 percent.
Undermining the UDF?
Perhaps the most spectacular attempt to undermine the popularity of the UDF was the "bugging scandal" that erupted in the summer of 2000. Some observers in Sofia believe the scandal was planned by the BSP to damage the UDF in the run-up to this year's parliamentary poll.
The tapping scandal first came to light in July when an electronic listening device was discovered in the flat of Chief State Prosecutor Nikolay Filchev. Interior Minister Emanuil Yordanov denied that any such operation had been authorized since he assumed his ministerial role seven months ago.
Emanouil Yordanov suggested the bug might have been placed in Filchev's flat while the Communists were still in power, and that the targets may have been foreign diplomats who previously lived in the flat.
The so-called "Brumbargate" opened up renewed allegations of divided loyalties within the security apparatus whose middle and lower ranks were inherited from the previous Socialist regime.
However, the whole affair was perhaps watered down but it is certain that with the approach of the June 2001 elections political momentum has been imparted to the scandal. UDF fear the scandal was politically driven in an attempt to diminish its popularity. Nonetheless, support from the electorate currently appears to be unaffected and there is no evidence to suggest a political motive.
Despite UDF concerns, others regard the scandal simply as a struggle between the executive and judicial branches of government, whilst others have speculated that the BSP perhaps planned the scandal to damage the popularity of the ruling UDF coalition.
Elections across the globe usually involve a certain degree of muckraking. The scandal may yet damage UDF popularity in the battle for electoral victory, especially when the BSP is ready to exploit voters' dissatisfaction with the negative impact of economic reforms. Whether the tapping affair was orchestrated by the Socialists or not, it threatens serious damage to the UDF coalition's reputation for upholding law and order.
The UDF is nonetheless also already searching for future coalition partners. The current coalition partner of the ruling party is the People's Union (Bulgarian Agrarian National Union and Democratic Party). A recent poll shows that the Union of Democratic Forces is still the leading political force nationwide and that it has a real chance to expand its majority in the new legislature, and with the loyal support of the People's Union it can win up to six percent more votes.
The New Left Alliance is making a concerted effort to snatch victory from the hands of the UDF in the June 2001 elections. Nonetheless, the UDF remains a strong force and could easily increase its popularity despite the backlash from scandals and the "usual" electoral stunts that attempt to throw a bad light on those parties competing for political supremacy. Although the New Left Alliance will be a tough act to beat, at present it seems that UDF will once again secure victory. However, a lot can happen in six months.
Konstantin Vulkov, 15 January 2001
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