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Coalition Fever Grips Bulgaria

Bulgaria's main political players forge new coalitions ahead of parliamentary elections in June
By Konstantin Vulkov

A new, broad-church alliance grouped around the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, is emerging as the main challenger to the ruling centre-right coalition government ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2001.


With no one party looking strong enough to win an election victory alone, inter-party alliance building has been the order of the day for several weeks. In January the BSP, the country's largest opposition party, broke all records signing seven pre-election agreements in six days.


Meanwhile, the ruling Union of Democratic Forces, UDF, is looking to broaden its coalition to win back support lost as a result of painful economic reforms and mounting allegations of corruption.


The UDF's current coalition partner, the People's Union (Bulgarian Agrarian National Union and Democratic Party), is expected to remain on board for the June ballot.


The BSP, Bulgaria's one-time Communist Party, currently holds 58 of the 240 seats in parliament. On January 28, the party announced several smaller leftist parties had joined the BSP in the New Left alliance in a bid to oust the UDF from office.


In January, BSP leader Georgui Parvanov said, "The formation of the New Left means the leftist parties want power."


Parvanov has been in opposition for four years and is eager to attract as many new allies as possible in his quest for electoral victory.


The New Left coalition now boasts 16 member parties, including die-hard communists, nationalists and liberals. Critics complain the alliance is little more than an opportunist attempt to win political power.


The alliance's election strategy is intriguing. Although most BSP members are hostile to NATO, in late December Parvanov insisted the party add its weight in support of Bulgaria's bid to join the organisation.


Eyebrows were also raised over the BSP pre-election agreement with the Bulgarian Communist Party. The latter are overt in their opposition to NATO and Parvanov had said any party demonstrating ultra-left and "archaic" communist values would be barred from the coalition.


But broader partnerships seem the only way forward for the leftist parties, which together won only 24 per cent of the vote in 1997.


The New Left's platform is catchy. Each party is to remain independent and enjoy equal rights.


The major parties in the alliance claim the founding memorandum has long-term goals and is not merely focused on the June election results.


The alliance is quick to dismiss those political observers who foresee hardship for the New Left, believing their broad coalition will bear fruit, especially in June.


The nucleus of the New Left comprises the BSP, the Social Democratic Party, the Movement of Social Democrats, which is dominated by former members of the Euroleft Party and the United Labour Block.


"The alliance is based on the values and principles of the modern European left and social democracy," Parvanov said.


Bulgaria's second largest opposition party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, MRF, which represents Bulgaria's Turkish minority (around 9 per cent of the population), has stayed out of the New Left alliance.


MRF leader Ahmed Dogan chose not to enter a pre-election agreement leading to speculation the party could play a crucial role in determining the eventual election winner.


Parvanov said, "the MRF is our strategic partner and we are discussing the possibilities of a post-election agreement."


Parvanov hopes a New Left election victory will secure the ground for member parties to form a coalition government.


According to a January opinion poll from the Sofia-based BBSS Gallup International, smaller political parties can only hope to get MPs into parliament by forming coalitions. Only the BSP, UDF and MRF are big enough to get there on their own.


BBSS Gallup International's chief, Kancho Stoichev, told The Associate Press, "The two main parties are close to a tie, they are almost running neck and neck."


According to Gallup's latest opinion poll, the UDF and the Socialists would win 22.2 per cent and 19.8 per cent of the vote respectively. The MRF would glean around 4.2 per cent.


A few new parties have arrived on the Bulgarian political scene over the last few months. These parties also look set to form coalitions.


The Civil Party was founded by the ever-popular former Bulgarian Interior Minister Bogomil Bonev. Television celebrity Lyuben Dilov Jnr, meanwhile, has set up the Gergyovden Movement. The two parties are expected to form a right-wing coalition.


Bonev said recently, "Towards the end of February we will have decided whether to participate in the elections together."


But Bonev and Dilov are likely to be accused of opportunism too. This hardly seems a genuine alliance of like-minded parties. Dilov's political expertise and aptitude for government have also been called into question.


The UDF's slim lead in the opinion polls looks vulnerable. A series of recent gangster-style crimes and continuing economic problems could bring about the UDF's defeat. In late January, six people fell victim to gangland-style shootings.


The crime spree prompted the BSP to pursue a vote of no confidence in the government of Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, but the UDF held on.


More damaging to BSP prospects, however, was the December 1, 2000, decision by the European Union to lift visa restrictions on Bulgarian nationals, a move which boosted the government's "good image" and the country's prospects for eventual EU membership.


Although most Bulgarians cannot afford to travel abroad, the December decision will hinder efforts to restrict trade, the export and import of capital, and improve movement in the economy.


Konstantin Vulkov is a regular IWPR contributor


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