Sergei Stanishev is the former Prime Minister of Bulgaria when the country joined the EU in 2007. He was also the leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) from 2001 to 2014, and the President of the Party of European Socialists (PES) since 2011. No other Bulgarian has held such a high position in a European political family. But despite these remarkable credentials, he may not lead the BSP list for the May 2019 European elections. And some say he will not be on the list at all. Georgi Gotev has the story.
The main reason is that Stanishev has ideological conflicts with the current BSP leader Kornelia Ninova. She took over the BSP leadership in May 2016, when the party’s ratings had reached a historic low, for which Stanishev was largely responsible, and rather quickly managed to transform it into a serious challenger to Boyko Borissov’s GERB. Commentators agree that if BSP wins the European elections (a latest poll credits GERB 27.7% and BSP 24.9%), early elections should be held. (The last parliamentary election was held in March 2017 and the National Assembly gets elected for a 4-year term.)
Stanishev is seen as largely responsible for the sorry state in which he left BSP. His major political mistake was in June 2013, when he engineered the appointment by the then Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski of Delyan Peevski as leader of the country’s State Agency for National Security (DANS). Peevski, a shady businessman, owner of a media empire, has a very bad reputation. He is a member of parliament from the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a political party representing the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. At that time, DPS was in coalition with the Bulgarian Socialist Party. The two forces managed to form a minority government on 29 May, and on 13 June voted the appointment of Peevski as DANS chief.
This was perceived by the wider public as putting a fox in charge the henhouse. Huge protests followed the appointment of Peevski, and was forced to resign. Stanishev admitted that this move had been a mistake, but he didn’t resign as leader of BSP, despite the pressure. As a direct consequence, BSP started unravelling, a new centre-left political force, ABV, appeared, and Stanishev abandoned his domestic duties, spending most of his time in Brussels. The Oresharski government survived, but not for long (he resigned on 23 July 2014), thanks to support from Ataka, a political force which can be described both as far-right and far-left. Ataka’s leader Volen Siderov is a big admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin. (At present, Ataka supports the government of Boyko Borissov.)
Tatyana Doncheva, the leader of a small centre-left force, recently said that after Stanishev brought down BSP, he was now helping bring down socialists at the EU level.
Against this historical background, new developments complicated further the relations between Ninova and Stanishev. As PES leader, Stanishev has been preaching Brussels-style political correctness, while Ninova embraced Bulgarian-style populism. On at least three dossiers, the two have clashed: the Istanbul Convention (the Council of Europe’s Convention on the Prevention and Combatting Domestic Violence), the Global migration pact (the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration), and the attitude toward Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Ninova snubbed the PES congress in Lisbon on 7-8 December, because among other issues such as the endorsement of Frans Timmermans as PES Spitzenkandidat for the EU elections and the re-election of Stanishev as PES leader, the congress adopted a declaration calling on EU countries to ratify the Istanbul convention and to adopt the Global compact on migration.
In Bulgaria, politicians made no effort to explain the true nature of the Istanbul convention and of the Global pact for migration. Instead, populists and social media have conveyed the message that the Council of Europe convention will introduce the “third gender”, whatever that means, and that the UN convention will open the door to hundreds of millions of refugees into Europe.
Ninova embraced the populist views, using as argument that other countries too were taking distance from the convention and the pact. Ninova and the vast majority of Bulgarian socialists support Orban, whom they admire for his capacity to withstand EU pressure, for protecting the national interest and for having good relations with Putin. At the 12 September vote in the European Parliament, Stanishev was the only Bulgarian socialist MEP who voted in favour of triggering article 7 against Hungary.
Despite Ninova’s absence, BSP was represented in Lisbon with a 10-member delegation, and its members said they had voted for Stanishev’ re-election.
Ninova has refused to say clearly if Stanishev would lead the list for the European election, saying that the decision will be taken in 2019, and that she would not lead the list.
Moreover, on 22 december she told Darik Radio that the BSP will chose its candidates for the European Parliament among those who oppose the Istanbul convention and the UN migration compact. This appears to exclude Stanishev.
Speaking on national television BNT the next day, Stanishev insisted it was important for him to combine his works as PES leader with the MEP mandate.
“It is no secret that it is important for me to work in the next European Parliament. Imagine that the BSP leader was not in the Bulgarian Parliament – there would always be a mismatch between the [parliamentary] group and the party. The same applies at European level, and it is important to have coordination between the PES party and our group in the European Parliament”, Stanishev said.
Asked if he could run for the European elections as independent, Stanishev said with irony that Boyko Borissov’s GERB party made hints that they could take him on board their lists as part of their civil quota.
BSP officials have said privately that there is no reason why Stanishev should appear on the list at all. Their argument is that the PES leader has already a job in Brussels, and that moreover, his opposite number, the leader of the EPP party Joseph Daul, is not an MEP either.
The BSP procedure of selecting candidates for the European election begins with gathering proposals from the local party organisations across the country.
Bulgarian voters have the possibility to vote for individual candidates of the political force they support for the European elections. BSP has four MEPs in the outgoing European Parliament. One of them, Momchil Nekov, was ranking low (15th out of 17) in the list of preferences, but was elected, because BSP had the number 15 in the list of the parties. Many BSP voters crossed both the number 15 for the party, and the same number for the candidate.