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Survival kit: two parties elect leaders in scramble to regain lost ground.

Two of Bulgaria's political parties, both of which are much-diminished in contrast to the years when each had a turn to govern the country, found themselves at the end of November facing the question of choosing their respective leaders, in the hope of climbing back to the high ground.

The two parties, the National Movement for Stability and Progress (NMSP) and the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), each met to elect new leaders on the weekend of November 28 and 29, hoping for a new impetus to rebuild their profiles in a centreright political landscape dominated by Prime Minister Boiko Borissov's party, GERB, the Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria.

Playing centre

When NMSP delegates gathered at Sofia's National Palace of Culture on November 28 at the party's fifth special congress, they had to formally approve the withdrawal of the party's founder and patron, Bulgaria's former monarch and former prime minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg (72).

The reason was Saxe Coburg's resignation from the party leadership after the NMSP's devastating defeat at the July 2009 national parliamentary elections, which left the party with no MPs after two consecutive eight-year terms served in the executive branch of power

With Saxe-Coburg out of the game, the question was who would take on the task of trying to persuade Bulgarians that the NMSP still had the potential to be something more than just a small-scale opposition party. One candidate leader was Nikolai Vassilev, who spent the past eight years in the cabinet, with several changes of portfolio. One of the most popular NMSP faces, Vassilev was considered a strong favourite for the post because no other candidate had much to show in terms of active political life: these were former social minister Hristina Hristova, former MEP Biliyana Raeva and financier Iliya Lingorski.


But a decisive role was played by Vassilev's position on where the NMSP should stand in the political spectrum.

According to media reports, Vassilev's stance was that the NMSP should steer away from the liberal direction it has followed in the past eight years and aim instead for closer cooperation with Borissov's centre right GERB.

Most analysts said that this cost Vassilev the election, because most NMSP delegates refused to accept the idea of getting close to Borissov, who shouldered them out of politics a few months ago.

Although Saxe-Coburg said that he did not want to be involved in any formal capacity with the NMSP and even refused the position of honorary chairperson of the party, it was obvious that his support would be decisive for the outcome of the leadership vote. And when, in his speech, he said that the NMSP should stay true to its ideals, meaning continuing to be in the middle ground of the political spectrum, Vassilev was set to lose.


The winner became known after a secret ballot--Hristova, who won 404 of the 717 votes. To many, she might have seemed as nothing more than Saxe-Coburg's compromise, but a second look at her party career shows that she has enjoyed a great deal of Saxe-Coburg's trust, carefully making her way through the party hierarchy while keeping a low profile, unlike Vassilev.

Her first priority will be to meet the party structures and prepare the party for the 2011 local elections and the national presidential elections, at both of which the NMSP plans to field its own candidates. As for whether Saxe-Coburg would continue being the party leader despite his withdrawal, she told Bulgarian news agency BTA, "he would always be the leader and I would always look for his counsel".

No alternative

Unlike the NMSP, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) had something to show after the July 2009 elections. It not only managed to win 10 seats in Parliament but also to send a representative to the European Parliament. This might look insignificant for a party which from 1997 to 2001 was the country's government, but the cold reality of opinion surveys at the beginning of 2009 was that such numbers were all the party could hope for in the elections, and this was what it got, thanks to the actions of its leader Martin Dimitrov.

To get there, however, he had to form a coalition with another right-wing party, Ivan Kostov's Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, a deal that his detractors held against Dimitrov when on November 29 he sought re-election as party leader.

But, at the same time, those detractors could not spell out an alternative approach in the context of the overwhelming popularity of Borissov and GERB, and the marginalisation of established right-wing parties such as the UDF and DSB.

In other words, a vote for Dimitrov was a vote for the policy of remaining in coalition with the DSB, an arrangement that has proven fruitful at the past two elections. A vote against Dimitrov was a vote for the UDF to go it alone. Recent history has taught that oblivion, or something very like it, awaits minority rightwing parties that try that route--as happened with the party of Sofia former mayor Stefan Sofianski, the Union of Free Democrats.

On November 29, more than 8000 UDF members chose to stay with both Dimtirov and the DSB.

At the end of election day, Dimitrov was confident of victory and said that his first priorities in the coming months would be to prepare the party for local elections in two years' time. This would include selecting the party's candidate mayors and municipal councillors.
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Author:Kotadinov, Petar
Publication:The Sofia Echo (Sofia, Bulgaria)
Date:Dec 4, 2009
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