Sunday, 17 May 2009

Domestic heavyweights enter election battle

The deadline for registering party lists for the European elections in Bulgaria passed this Friday (May 15th). Some of the major parties waited to the last moment before announcing their candidates, obviously hoping to surprise their opponents. Some surprises did occur, especially regarding the names of the people leading the lists.

With the Bulgarian parliamentary elections coming up in less than two months (to be held on July 5th), Bulgarian parties are eager to prove themselves on the European elections and thus further motivate their electorate for the national vote. That led to the introduction of some "domestic heavyweights" in the electoral battle.

The biggest surprise was the appearance of the Bulgarian foreign minister Ivaylo Kalfin on the No.1 spot in the list of the Socialist Party.

Mr. Kalfin is not even a member of the Socialist party which sparked some internal debate among party officials but since he enjoyed the backing of the current prime minister (and party leader) his candidacy was officially announced on Friday. Ivaylo Kalfin has a background in international economic relations and international banking before becoming an MP in 1994, presidential advisor in 2002 and subsequently - foreign minister in 2005.

Not so surprisingly came another high-profile candidacy - that of the present European commissioner Meglena Kuneva.

Ms. Kuneva's name was mentioned as a possible top-candidate of the list of the Bulgarian liberals for quite some time and the party made it official ahead of the registration deadline. Nicknamed “Ms. Yes” during Bulgaria’s accession negotiations with the EU, she became a Commissioner in 2007 when the country finally joined the union. Commisionner of the Year in 2008. Rumor has it she will not become an MEP even if elected but give way to the next in the party list. Her chances of retaining the commissioner post are rather slim as the party that backs her - NDSV has a quite low electoral support of 2-6% of the people.

The center-right "Blue coalition" is also fielding a prominent figure - the former foreign minister Nadejda Mihaylova.

Ms. Mihaylova was Bulgarian foreign minister between 1997 and 2001. During that period she had to handle the Kosovo conflict and the start of the Bulgarian negotiations for EU accession. Vice-president of the European People's Party between 1999 and 2006. The polls predict the "Blue coalition" could claim one or two of the 17 Bulgarian seats in the EP so she would most probably continue her political carrier as an MEP.

The other parties chose not to field their best soldiers in this battle and keep them for the national vote or simply were not able to find such candidates. The populist GERB (now with 5 MEPs) and the Turkish-minority party DPS ( with 4) chose sitting MEPs to head their lists.

GERB's Rumyana Zheleva has been connected to the post of future European commissioner for quite some time now, although no official statement on the topic has been released by the party. Ms. Zheleva has been in the consultancy sector before becoming an MEP in 2007.

The overall look of the candidates shows that Bulgarian parties take these elections more seriosly than the first time when Bulgaria had to elect its MEPs in 2007. Two years ago the top candidates were mostly young party officials, now we see an acting and former foreign minister, accompanied by a European commissioner. The main reason behind that is most probably the fact that everybody (voters, parties, experts) see the European elections merely as a first round to the national ones. Understandably all actors want to do well. In any case the higher profile of candidates and the increased politicization of society should result in a higher turnout. Due to the two year work of current MEPs Bulgarian society is slightly more informed about what the European Parliament is about. In this sense these elections will be more European and should produce a more legitimate result than the 2007 ones.

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