Prague, 23 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- On the face of it, maintenance of the status quo appears to be the best that Bulgaria's opposition can hope for when the country goes to the polls Sunday to elect its next president.
The president's office is now one of the last branches of government in Sofia that is not controlled by former communists in the renamed Socialist Party.
President Zhelyu Zhelev lost an opposition primary in June and is not seeking another term of office. That makes a victory for Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) candidate Petar Stoyanov essential to stop the Socialists from extending their power to the executive branch.
Political analysts in Sofia say that an absolute victory for Stoyanov on Sunday also would be seen as a denunciation of Prime Minister Zhan Videnov's Socialist government, and would deepen a rift between Socialist factions.
That rift already has sharpened by the assassination earlier this month of Videnov's biggest critic within the Socialist Party -- Bulgaria's last communist Prime Minister, Andrei Lukanov.
Close associates of Lukanov say he had been preparing to expose corruption within Videnov's faction and plotting a political reshuffle when he was killed in front of his Sofia home on October 2. No arrests have been made. An investigation is continuing.
Stoyanov is now playing up the possibility that his victory would lead to a decisive split in the Socialist leadership, and, he hopes, early parliamentary elections.
At a weekend rally in Varna, Stoyanov said that a vote for his UDF would be "a vote of no confidence" for Videnov. Stoyanov is saying that popular support for the Socialists in the December 1994 general election has disappeared.
The Socialist coalition now has 125 seats in the 240-seat parliament. Unless early parliamentary elections are called, the next parliamentary ballot will not be held until the end of 1998.
But analysts agree that a split in the Socialist Party could lead to Videnov's ouster and the formation of a new coalition government.
The Socialist candidate is Culture Minister Ivan Marazov. Until his appointment to that post early this year, Marazov was a specialist of Thracian history at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. He supports the so-called "Orthodox Idea" -- that is, that the future of Bulgaria lies in religious and political union with Belgrade, Moscow and Athens. He has so far refused to support the idea of Bulgarian membership in NATO, saying instead that he would put the issue to a referendum.
As Culture Minister, Marazov is responsible for verifying copyright holdings on all compact disc manufacturing orders in Bulgaria. The U.S. government recently warned that Sofia is ignoring its own copyright laws. Music industry representatives charge that Bulgaria's state-owned plants are producing millions of illegal CDs each year and that, with the involvement of the culture and trade ministries, the country has become Europe's biggest producer of pirate CDs.
Marazov became a candidate after the Constitutional Court in Sofia declared that Socialist Foreign Minister George Pirinski was not eligible because he was not born in Bulgaria. Pirinski, who was considered a front runner, had earlier named Marazov as his running mate.
Like President Zhelev, Stoyanov says that he would support Bulgaria's integration into NATO and the European Union.
Under its post-communist constitution, Bulgaria is a parliamentary republic in which the president's powers are limited to vetoing legislation, appointing ambassadors and some state officials, and commanding the armed forces.
Nevertheless, the position has been important for anti-communist forces. Zhelev and his diplomatic appointees have repeatedly called the attention of Western governments to the nomenklatura mafia structures that have slowed Sofia's economic reforms in order to advance their own interests.
Altogether, 13 candidates are contesting Sunday's poll. If no candidate gathers a majority of the votes, a run-off ballot would be conducted on the following Sunday (November 3) between the top two candidates.
Sofia University political analyst Ognian Minchev says support for a third candidate, George Ganchev, has been rising in recent weeks and that he could conceivably beat Marazov as one of the top two candidates on Sunday.
Ganchev, leader of the self-styled Bulgarian Business Bloc, is a comical populist figure who appears to be gathering support from voters who are disillusioned with both the Socialist Party and the UDF.
Minchev says that Ganchev could become the next president if he makes it to the second round, and if he is then backed by the Socialists.
Some leading Socialist parliamentarians have already stated publicly that they would support Ganchev in a second round ballot against Stoyanov.