President Radev emerges as Bulgaria’s new saviour

President Radev emerges as Bulgaria’s new saviour
Former air force commander Rumen Radev was widely respected in Bulgaria before he decided to run for the presidency.
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia October 25, 2018

As scandals shake the Bulgarian government, raising the threat of early elections, President Rumen Radev looks like the best candidate to become the new “saviour” of the nation. 

The country has a long tradition of embracing charismatic politicians who promise to usher in a new, better order, raising living standards and conquering the widespread high-level corruption. 

Current Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has occupied this role for years, but his “man of the people” status has dissipated during his three mandates as head of government, and his personal rating is falling constantly.

Stuck with the status quo for years, Bulgarians’ trust in the government has dropped to just 20%, and parliament gets even less — a trust rating of around 17%, recent polls have shown. Still, the majority of people do not want early elections as they see no more attractive alternative at present.

Radev, on the other hand, is an excellent candidate to take the empty saviour’s seat as he does not belong to any party and is in the comfortable position of being able to criticise parliament, government and prosecutors without being able to actually do anything himself. 

The former commander of Bulgaria’s air force was nominated and backed for president by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), but on taking up the post he easily distanced himself from the party as he is not a member.

He became widely popular several years ago when he resigned as commander in protest against the government’s failure to modernise the army. At the time, Borissov, then heading his second government, persuaded Radev to withdraw his resignation, but the air force commander managed to keep his image of an independent man of principle.

A few months later, the Bulgarian air forces put on an impressive air show where Radev performed the most risky and difficult figures with his fighter jet, cementing his popularity.

Sky high ambitions

Since taking the presidential post, Radev has shown that he has much higher ambitions. He started flexing his muscles with Borissov to see what the public’s reaction would be. And, apparently, he has found the right rhetoric as polls show that should Radev form a political party, this party would have the highest chance to beat Borissov’s Gerb and change the political situation in the country. A September poll carried out by Mediana showed that a potential party launched by Radev would gain 41.9% support — significantly higher than any existing party. Analysts believe that he might try to cash in on his personal high rating.

“[If Radev] finds a way to bypass the constitution [which bans the president from leading a political party], the president might use his high personal rating to launch and legitimise a political project — how, with what result, etc. is yet to be seen,” Petar Cholakov, Associate Professor at the Social Control, Deviation and Conflicts department at the Sofia-based Institute for the Study of Societies and Knowledge, told bne IntelliNews.

Many believe that Radev launched his unofficial campaign during his recent visit to the UK where he met Queen Elizabeth II and Bulgarians living in the country. The visit was seen as successful because it showed that Radev is not dependent on Russia (although he defends Moscow’s interests in Bulgaria) and gained him the approval of the Bulgarian community in London — a symbolic victory over Borissov who was attacked by the same community several years ago for relying too much on controversial businessman and politician Delyan Peevski.

In February 2016, Borissov was asked by a young man in Bulgaria’s embassy in London whether he sees Peevski when looking in the mirror. Shortly afterwards Borissov suddenly stopped several big public orders won by companies associated with Peevski and launched various checks, though these produced no result.

By contrast, Radev’s reputation had remained unharmed even by an accident involving his father Georgi, who hit a disabled man with his car this summer. The police tried to cover up the accident at the time, but it was revealed on social media and led to the dismissal of the police officers involved. However, the scandal quickly blew over as the victim said he does not intend to file a claim against the president’s father.

Shaky coalition

While Radev benefits from criticising the government and parliament and vetoing controversial laws, the ruling coalition between Borissov’s Gerb and the far-right United Patriots has become more unstable than ever.

Since its establishment, the coalition has been hit by scandals nearly every month, each more serious than the last. In the past few months alone, the government was shaken by highly controversial actions against journalists investigating top-level corruption, a deadly road accident that resulted in the resignations of three ministers and constantly escalating conflicts between the members of the United Patriots. Rather than inspiring confidence, the actions of the coalition leaders are provoking either outrage or laughter among Bulgarians.

This makes the chances of an early election higher than ever. According to analysts, early elections could be scheduled to coincide with the European Parliament election in May 2019, or the local election in autumn next year. However, Cholakov believes that the ongoing scandals show that the situation is now getting out of control.

“It is very likely that an early election could appear the only possible solution to the next political crisis, even before May 2019,” he said.

Cholakov pointed out that Gerb has already tried to use the tools at its disposal to calm down the situation — changing ministers and promising more money to retired people and those working for the state administration.

“This, simply translated, is an attempt to buy comfort. However exactly this purchase (a sort of shopping therapy realised on the political stage) shows that those in power are feeling weak. Aside from that, the signals from their camp are that Gerb is preparing very hard for an election (and I do not mean for the EU parliament or local ones),” Cholakov said.

He added that the continuous stay in power is negatively affecting the rating of the United Patriots and very likely one of the parties might decide to leave the coalition. Lately, the leader of Ataka, one of the three small parties making up the United Patriots, has been giving such signals.

If the coalition between Gerb and the United Patriots collapses, an early election seems inevitable as Gerb will rather risk its chances in the polling booths than formalise its relations with ethnic-Turk Movement for Rights and Freedom (DPS) or be dependent on the small populist Volya party led by controversial businessman Vesselin Mareshki.

“Maybe depending on the outcome [of the EU parliament election in spring] Borissov will decide what to do. This is what happened in 2014 — the election for the EU parliament (and, in addition, Corpbank and South Stream) titled the balance towards an early election and rearrangement of coalitions,” Dimitar Bechev, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said.

Disunited patriots

In the past few weeks, the internal conflicts between the parties in the United Patriots coalition have evolved and two of their three leaders are demanding each other’s resignations and removal from senior posts. 

The United Patriots is a coalition between three far-right parties, the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), the Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO) and Ataka. The coalition is led by the heads of the three parties — Valeri Simeonov of the NFSB, Krassimir Karakachanov of VMRO and Volen Siderov of Ataka.

The conflict between Siderov and Simeonov has escalated in the past few weeks as Simeonov’s party has decided to withdraw its confidence in Siderov, who is the leader of the United Patriots’ parliamentary group.

Tensions increased significantly after Siderov said he wants to head the United Patriots' candidate list in the May 2019 European Parliament elections. As the rift deepened, Siderov’s cable TV channel Alfa personally attacked Simeonov. Alfa stopped its regular broadcasts on October 15, blaming the government, though it was not clear why. A day later, Alfa replaced its broadcasts with black slides with messages against Simeonov.

Meanwhile, Simeonov sparked a new round of protests by mothers of disabled children and their supporters who had been campaigning for better treatment for their children. The politician called the campaigners “a group of shrill women who speculated with their children, manipulated society, taking out in the streets those allegedly ill children in hot weather and rain” — unsurprisingly sparking mass outrage, more protests and calls for his resignation. 

Siderov immediately reacted and also demanded Simeonov’s resignation, but Borissov and Karakachanov stood behind him and stated that if Simeonov falls the government will collapse.

However, while the early election scenario seems the most likely option, many Bulgarians say this wouldn’t change anything as, at this moment, there is no meaningful alternative to the status quo — unless Radev decides to change that.