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Phantom Pollster Has A Way Of Popping Up, Propping Up Bulgaria's Ruling Coalition

Is Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's ruling coalition being propped up by "fake data" and a servile public broadcaster?
Is Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's ruling coalition being propped up by "fake data" and a servile public broadcaster?

If a ruling coalition's popularity falls in the forest, does it make a sound?

Maybe not, if that forest lies on the Bulgarian political landscape.

It's a conundrum that might be on the minds of millions of Bulgarians ahead of a key electoral test in March for Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's governing bipartite coalition, which has been in power since 2017.

Bulgarian National Television (BNT), the public broadcaster, touted some questionable figures in a November 30 broadcast of its main news after asking the question: "If parliamentary elections were held today, which political entity would you vote for?"

Its report cited combined support for the GERB-led coalition that appeared to be considerably overstated in comparison to most pollsters' data. "Against a backdrop of tightening [anti-pandemic] measures, the opinion about GERB does not see significant changes -- [it is still at] more than 20 percent," the presenter said. He went on to say there was nearly 8 percent support for the United Patriots, the junior ruling alliance comprising three nationalist parties.

The BNT program cited the pollster Barometer Bulgaria, concluding, "Those are the public's views."

But a Gallup International poll a week earlier had put GERB's public support at 13 percent and the United Patriots' at a little over 2 percent, well below the 4 percent threshold needed to reach parliament.

A few weeks before that, Sofia-based Alpha Research had published its own study asserting that the United Patriots wouldn't reach the legislature if current support levels persisted.

But by late last month, BNT's viewers were instead being assured that the nationalist United Patriots were coasting toward a third- or fourth-place finish behind their conservative populist GERB partners and the opposition Socialist Party (BSP) as elections loom on March 28.

Critics fear that the rosy forecast for the ruling coalition is a combination of credulity -- or worse -- at the public broadcaster, along with a potentially politically driven agenda at a pollster with ties to the United Patriots. They suggest the discrepancies could be a harbinger of "fake data," a situation that could be made worse by a politically entrenched coalition that is limping toward the polls.

Borisov and his allies' popularity has taken hit after hit amid intermittent street protests demanding the government's resignation over corruption scandals and crises over the courts and the rule of law, as well as the opaque handling of the measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

'Fake News' vs. 'Fake Data'

Other pollsters declined to comment on the practices of Barometer Bulgaria specifically, but agreed that there are pollsters actively "undermining the credibility of the data."

"I'll explain it this way: Just as there is 'fake news,' there is also 'fake data,'" Boriana Dimitrova, owner and managing partner of Alpha Research, a polling and market-research company in Sofia, told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service. She added that the media can choose to "take a stand" and marginalize agencies that provide unreliable figures.

Elections show who's right and who's wrong.

"When the media find that an agency makes not simply a sociological mistake but directly substitutes for reality, the media shouldn't reproduce what is presented as data," Dimitrova said.

Asked about public broadcaster BNT's criteria for citing the work of polling agencies like Barometer Bulgaria, the station's general director, Emil Koshlukov, told RFE/RL, "This is a decision of the [news and] information directorate, not of the general director."

One-Man Show

Barometer Bulgaria was established in December 2010 as a limited liability PR, polling, and market-research company.

Owner and partner Nikolay Nikolov is its only employee and the only public face of its polling. Its Facebook page has 200 or so likes, and a link there to its research data takes readers to a seemingly unrelated dead end touting "a project of Bankya Analytica."

Nikolov is an occasional contributor to the PIK information website and other pro-government media.

An outlet called Europe TV, which is headed by a GERB party member and founder of the local Institute for Right-Wing Politics, Georgi Harizanov, cited the Barometer Bulgaria poll and concluded in an accompanying article that there was "little support for the [opposition] protests and great support for the government."

Nikolov is also listed as a joint partner in a Sofia-based real-estate brokerage and consulting company called Nikar Imoti with Carlos Contrera, a city councilor and member of the national executive of the ultranationalist IMRO party, one of the three parties that make up the United Patriots.

Nikolov denied deliberately boosting IMRO's numbers in his poll results, including his agency's prediction in the run-up to voting in 2019 that IMRO mayoral candidate Angel Djambazki would get around 20 percent of the vote. Djambazki got less than 4 percent. "Elections show who's right and who's wrong," he said.

"It's not a complicated job," Nikolov said when asked about Barometer Bulgaria's not having any other employees or anyone with a degree in sociological research or a related field. "I hire students for research. They get paid and don't work with me all the time."

He said he had no "special relationship" to the public broadcaster. "If you're wondering how our data gets to specific places -- we send a press release and if a media outlet wants to use it, it does," Nikolov said.

At-'Risk' Country

The international watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranked Bulgaria 111th out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, "the lowest ranking of any country in the EU/Balkans region."

RSF has repeatedly criticized Borisov's government for ignoring its own pledges to improve press freedom. It warned recently that Bulgaria "risks becoming a country with no one to exercise" press freedom and pluralism as it is enshrined in Bulgaria's 1991 constitution.

Bulgaria's amended 1998 Law for Radio and Television guarantees the independence of the country's public radio and TV broadcasters but leaves supervision to a council for electronic media. The same legislation also obliges Bulgarian National Radio and BNT to inform the public and reflect diverse ideas and convictions.

Bulgaria's ruling parties recently abandoned work on a new draft constitution that they described as a "restart of the system."

The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's advisory body on democracy, human rights, and rule of law, had criticized that process as dominated by Borisov and his ruling allies.

The commission expressed "regret" that the process excluded opposition and other parties and "was not preceded by an appropriate public debate."

Written in Prague by Andy Heil based on reporting by Polina Paulova of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service in Sofia
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    Polina Paunova

    Polina Paunova is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden.