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European elections in Bulgaria: Just a rehearsal for a bigger poll

Borissov at the GERB congress on 20 January [Facebook page of Boyko Borissov]

On Sunday (20 January) Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and his right hand Tsvetan Tsvetanov gathered 2,000 of the party leadership at a pre-election congress in Sofia. The gathering was in the same building where were most of the events of the Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU were held. Krassen Nikolov has the story.

If Borissov is the brand ambassador of GERB, Tsvetanov is the man who knows best how elections are organized. The ruling party is a machine for election victories and owes its successes over the past 12 years to its strong structures in small settlements.

In front of the activists, Tsvetanov said what others do not dare for now – in Bulgaria, the European elections are just a rehearsal for the local elections in October. Borisov added that people were not interested in elitist topics “such as Brexit”.

Mayors and municipal councilors matter a lot to GERB, because they are the backbone of the party. Local governments are key factors not only for the organisation of the elections, but for the party’s funding.

“We are preparing for the European elections, but the main focus is on local elections. I am convinced that the European elections and the victory we will achieve will give us a boost for the local vote,” Tsvetanov said. A day later, he announced that GERB should be able to elect 7 MEP’s instead of the present 6.

The EU agenda has never been able to find resonance in Bulgaria. European elections are seen as a vote of confidence, or no confidence, vis-à-vis the government. That’s why campaign topics are of local significance – the incomes, corruption, the Roma minority, the prosecution’s activism… This time too, GERB does not intend to change its approach, even though the European Parliament elections are of particular importance to Europe because of the rise of nationalists.

GERB sees the European elections as an important milestone for strengthening its positions in the central government and for securing a good base for preparing local elections in the autumn. The political horizon in Bulgaria has never been very distant.

But there is enormous corruption in the Bulgarian municipalities and the control is almost zero. Local media are too dependent, and few independent central media outlets can’t cover the whole country. In municipalities money is spent in the dark. An iconic case is that of former MP from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) Mithat Tabakov, who has been jailed for five years. Tabakov manipulated a public procurement contract for €18 million while he was mayor of the town of Dulovo in northeastern Bulgaria.

In recent years, corruption scandals at local level severely damaged GERB’s image. Borissov’s party controls half of the municipalities in Bulgaria. Former GERB Energy Minister Delyan Dobev managed to appoint many of his relatives to important positions in the municipality of Haskovo, where the mayor is from the same political force. Dobrev escaped unharmed and continues to be an MP from GERB. But his colleague Zhivko Martinov is prosecuted for blackmailing a meat producer from Dobrich for obtaining 4 tons of meat delicacies (sudzhuk). Martinov had asked for the delicacies on behalf of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, although such link was not proven. The ‘sudzhuk-gate’ scandal reached enormous proportions and Martinov had to leave the parliament.

GERB’s rehabilitation program for old communism-time housing has also raised many doubts. Local media revealed that some of the contracts were concluded at prices three times higher than the market rate.

“If you do not clean up your houses [from corruption], sooner or later it will creep from there, whether in the form of sudzhuk or something else…” Borissov said.

“I love you [GERB leadership], but this is not a given. It is a fact that the BSP with these failed politicians is trailing us [according to opinion polls]. If you do not see the red beacon, I will light up the blue [the police car siren], warned Borisov. The prime minister, however, conveniently missed to mention the corruption scandals at national level. At the end of last year, the government approved a €700 million scheme for construction of the Hemus highway [Sofia-Varna]. The money will be spent without public procurement.

Borissov also disclosed GERB’s main line before the European vote. The party plans to combine in a unique way European issues with the local political context. GERB will condemn its BSP opponents as “populists” who want to destroy stability in Europe and Bulgaria. Thus, the election campaign can easily be adapted for local use with a light European nuance.

Borissov said that “the most corrupt people are talking about corruption at the moment,” having in mind BSP and it’s leader Kornelia Ninova.

The GERB leader urged mayors to work with people because in his words Bulgarians do not like elitist parties, and don’t care much about European issues.

“We have to be very careful about whether we have not become something like this [an elitist party]. Let’s not allow this to happen. The mayor should talk to every person. But if you talk to someone about big things such as Brexit or something else, it will have no effect at all”, Borissov explained GERB’s tactics before the European elections,

This guarantees that the electoral campaign in Bulgaria would remain grounded at the local level.

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