Socialist Coalition Loses in Bulgaria Election

Socialist Coalition Loses in Bulgaria Election

July 6, 2009

Socialist Coalition Loses in Bulgaria Election


SOFIA, Bulgaria — Mayor Boyko Borisov of Sofia, a burly former black-belt bodyguard with a penchant for tough talk, cigars and leather jackets, led his center-right opposition party to a larger-than-expected election victory on Sunday over Bulgaria’s governing Socialist-led coalition, which was weakened by a severely deteriorating economy and voter fatigue with chronic corruption.

With nearly two-thirds of the vote counted on Sunday night, Mr. Borisov’s party, the Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria, had 42 percent of the vote, while the Socialist-led coalition had 18 percent, less than had been anticipated. Mr. Borisov will probably be the next prime minister, if negotiations to form a coalition government are successful. Mr. Borisov’s party has become the leading political force in the country, campaigning on promises of change and bringing accountability to government.

The incumbents were punished by an electorate fed up over what many viewed as endemic abuse of power in Bulgaria, exacerbated by the country’s deteriorating relationship with the European Union, which it joined on Jan. 1, 2007.

Bulgaria lost 430 million euros — roughly $600 million — in European Union funds last year because of poor government administration and a failure to clean up graft. An additional 300 million euros in European Union funds for Bulgaria had been frozen.

Critics had also accused the government of failing to take adequate measures to minimize the impact of the global economic crisis, which hit Bulgaria later than the rest of Europe.

Mr. Borisov is a colorful character whose preferences for blunt language, cigars and black Italian leather trench coats endear him to many southern European countrymen.

“I vote for a European Bulgaria, which has to prove that it is not the poorest and most corrupt country in Europe,” Mr. Borisov said Sunday after voting.

Dozens of election day irregularities were reported, like sandwiches wrapped in campaign advertising, the buying of votes in exchange for cash and cases of voting with false documents.

The campaign was also characterized by concerns about the lawfulness and fairness of the vote.

The candidates in the election included a half-dozen defendants facing serious criminal charges, including embezzlement, the trafficking of women and the distribution of narcotics. Under a Bulgarian law originally designed to protect candidates from government harassment, candidates have the same immunity as elected deputies. The courts, therefore, released criminal defendants so they could campaign.

Media coverage focused heavily on the so-called criminal candidates. While analysts had predicted that such people had little chances of winning, their candidacies fed perceptions of an anything-goes election campaign.

In a ballot for the European Parliament in June, 16 percent of Bulgarian votes were cast in exchange for cash or under the pressure of employers, according to Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization that tracks corruption globally.

Illegal efforts to control the vote, through pressure or cash, were considered so serious that campaign advertising was required to contain the text, “Buying and selling votes is a crime.”

Bulgarian media reported that, in the European elections, vote-buying groups demanded cellphone pictures of appropriately marked ballots before they made payments, which were between 15 and 25 euros, or $21 to $35.

While analysts reported widespread doubts among the public about the credibility of the Sunday vote, participation reached an unexpectedly high 60 percent of the electorate, according to the partial results released by the Central Electoral Commission.

With a large electoral victory expected to make forming a government simpler, Mr. Borisov now faces the enormous task of alleviating the economic impact of the global economic downturn while restoring public confidence in the Bulgarian state apparatus.

“To a great extent, support for the government is going to depend on its readiness to face up to corruption and to make accountable some of those who abused power,” said Ivan Krastev, a political scientist and chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia.

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