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Bulgaria: Presidential Election Goes Into Runoff

Bulgarian voters on 18 November will go to the polls for a second time to elect a president after yesterday's election failed to draw the required 50 percent of registered voters. Georgi Parvanov, the leader of the once-communist Socialist Party, fared better than expected in the vote and faces incumbent Petar Stoyanov in a runoff that is likely to be close.

Prague, 12 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Nearly two-thirds of Bulgarian voters, angry at unfulfilled promises of higher living standards and allegations of corruption, stayed away from polls during yesterday's presidential election. The Central Electoral Commission said just 39 percent of the country's 6.8 million registered voters cast ballots.

The vote pitted favored incumbent Petar Stoyanov -- running as an independent -- against Georgi Parvanov from the once-communist Socialist Party, Bogomil Bonev of the small center-right Civic Party, and three other candidates.

Unofficial results released today show Stoyanov and Parvanov in a dead heat at around 35 percent of the vote each. Bonev placed third at about 20 percent.

(The Central Electoral Commission said that due to a computer failure it could not release official preliminary results today as expected. Final results are now due on 14 November at the latest.)

Stoyanov and Parvanov will face each other on 18 November in a runoff.

The Bulgarian Constitution says for a first-round election to be valid, turnout must exceed 50 percent of registered voters and one candidate must obtain at least 50 percent of the vote. In a runoff, there is no requirement for voter participation. Whoever wins more than half the votes is president.

The presidency is largely a figurehead position and low turnout had been expected. But yesterday's participation rate, the lowest since the fall of the communism more than a decade ago, went beyond the worst projections.

Stoyanov had been widely expected to win by a comfortable margin -- and possibly even an outright victory -- in the first round.

At press conferences late yesterday, the candidates sought to assign blame for the turnout. Parvanov said it marked what he called a "collapse of public trust" in the political establishment: "People no longer want the status quo. People want change and we are gratified that a considerable number of voters see us as [the force to carry out] that change."

Until parliamentary elections in June, Bulgaria had been ruled by a succession of governments from the Socialist Party and the center-right Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) since the fall of communism. However, both major parties performed poorly in that vote, which brought to power a right-leaning coalition led by the former king and now prime minister, Simeon Saxecoburggotski.

Parvanov said the outcome yesterday marked a "rehabilitation" of the political left: "I wouldn't want to comment now on the future of the [political] left. But I am convinced that what is happening now is a necessary, albeit small, rehabilitation of the political left, of the social [priorities], and although not all will agree [with me], a small rehabilitation of the [political] parties.

Stoyanov said voters stayed away from the polls because their real concerns were not addressed in the pre-election debate: "Before the first round, a relevant political debate about the concerns of Bulgarian citizens and the future of Bulgaria did not take place."

Stoyanov, running for a second five-year term as an independent, had the backing both of the opposition SDS and the former king's ruling coalition. Paradoxically, the support of those two major parties may have undermined his chances of winning.

Stoyanov, once a SDS member, won his first term in 1996 on the SDS ticket. Hard-line SDS supporters now blamed him for distancing himself from the party while other voters linked him to the shortcomings of the previous SDS government. There was also widespread speculation -- denied by the ruling coalition -- that the support of the former monarch was not wholehearted.

Stoyanov acknowledged that support may have been wavering, but he said he was confident all that will change now that he was facing the Socialist leader: "I do believe that I can mobilize a significant number of supporters of the National Movement Simeon II. As to the SDS, I am almost convinced that if until now some of the SDS hard-line supporters have been wavering, in the runoff they will no longer waver because now the [political] picture is absolutely clear."

Analysts say the low turnout may have played in Parvanov's favor since Socialist supporters are more united. The SDS is still in disarray following its defeat in the June general election, while the former king's National Movement still has no party structures.

Mudslinging accusations of corruption on the eve of the election may have further alienated voters.

Bonev, a former interior minister, accused Stoyanov of accepting donations from a shadowy business company. The incumbent president, in turn, revealed a secret intelligence report alleging that Bonev had maintained corrupt business links while in office in 1997-99. Parvanov stayed out of the fray.

Bonev yesterday blamed Stoyanov for devaluing the presidency which, he said, was the reason for the low turnout: "We think the main reason so few voters cast their ballots today is the fact that over the past five years the presidential institution was devalued to such an extent that people decided it simply carries no weight."

Bonev's Civic Party is not represented in parliament. But his relatively strong showing in the first round indicates he may become a figure to be reckoned with in the future.

The powers of the presidency are limited under Bulgaria's constitution as a parliamentary republic. But the office does carry moral authority and influences the country's image abroad. During his five years in office, Stoyanov worked hard toward achieving Bulgaria's goals of membership in NATO and the European Union.

Parvanov says he shares those priorities.