Bulgaria has a Presidential election this weekend. There’s no question who’s going to win, but there’s still some nail-biting suspense.
Why? Well, the current President is former Socialist Georgi Parvanov. (“Former” Socialist because the Bulgarian President must not be affiliated with any political party.) He seems to be a decent enough fellow. The Bulgarian Presidency doesn’t have a lot of power, but Parvanov looks good, says all the right things, and has generally acted Presidential. Earlier this year, he acknowledged that he’d “cooperated” with the State Security Service back in the days of Communism; perhaps because he was quick to admit it, nobody seems to hold it much against him.
Parvanov is reasonably popular. He’s not considered brilliant, but he’s energetic, peripatetic, and constantly in the public eye. (There’s a joke that if you want to see him, build a doghouse, and he’ll show up to cut the ribbon.) So, he will almost certainly win the election this Tuesday.
But. Under Bulgaria’s election law, Presidential elections go to a second round if (1) nobody wins 50% of the votes cast, or (2) 50% of eligible voters don’t turn out. Parvanov will probably get well past 50%, but low turnout seems likely — in the last national election, only 42% of the voters showed up. So there will probably be a second round.
This raises the interesting question of who’ll come in second.
The Clean Judge, the Clever Old Man, and the Asshole
Although eight candidates are running, four of them are no-hopers. Realistically, only three people have any chance of making it into the second round to challenge Parvanov.
First, there’s Georgi Markov. A judge in Bulgaria’s constitutional court, he was a major figure in the early ’90s, but has since been marginalized. Markov is standing as the clean, untainted candidate who is above party politics. Currently his poll numbers are in single digits, and he probably has little chance unless some other candidates drop out.
Second, there’s Nedelcho Beronov. A conservative, he’s smooth, polished, and articulate; there’s general agreement that he’s one of the smartest men in Bulgarian politics. Unfortunately, he’s 78 years old. His poll numbers are hovering around 10-15%.
Third, there’s Volen Siderov. Siderov is the leader of “Ataka”, the obnoxious xenophobe populist nationalist party. Almost every country in Eastern Europe has such a party. In Bulgaria it took a while to emerge — “Ataka” (the name means “Attack”) only appeared in 2004. But then it gained 8% of the vote and 21 seats in Parliament.
Siderov is pretty much what you’d expect. He got started in politics hosting an “in-your-face” cable TV show. His trademark is a black leather jacket. His speeches are long, spittle-flecked rants. A homophobe and a xenophobe, he blames Bulgaria’s economic problems on Turks and Gypsies; he’s currently under indictment for encouraging violence against minorities. In sum, he’s an asshole.
He’s polling over 20%, about as much as the next two candidates combined.
Depressing? A little; but then, France sent Jean-Marie Le Pen to the runoff a few years back. And then, Bulgaria’s neighbor Romania had a runoff between Ion Iliescu and populist-nationalist sleazebag Vadim Tudor in 2001. So it’s not exactly unheard of. The two-round system of Presidential elections encourages everyone and his dog to run, making it possible to win second place with just 20% or so of the vote. If it’s reasonably well organized, and has a half presentable leader, it’s just not that hard for an obnoxious populist nationalist party to get 20%.
The key issue is not whether Siderov will make it to the runoff — he probably will — but how well he’ll do once he gets there. If he gets more than a third of the vote in the runoff election, there’s a problem. If not, shrug and move on — Bulgaria joins the EU on January 1, and will have other fish to fry.