Eye on Justice as New Political Star Emerges Inter_Press - 2007/6/1
SOFIA, Jun 1 (IPS) - Justice Minister Georgi Petkanov announced he will resign after the weekend because of health reasons, saying "work at the ministry is extremely hard." Meanwhile, a rising politician who has staked a claim as an anti-crime crusader is making his way towards the prime minister's chair.
Bulgarians voted for the first time to elect representatives to the European Parliament on May 20. The results were a good indication of just how popular Sofia Mayor Boiko Borisov is, suggesting he has a chance at becoming the country's next prime minister, say observers.
Bulgaria became a European Union member on Jan. 1, 2007. Petkanov is stepping down just one month before the European Commission will make its first evaluation of the country's performance -- and progress on justice is perhaps the most critical issue.
With its eight million people, Bulgaria has been assigned 18 of the European Parliament's 732 seats.
Since August 2005, Bulgaria has been led by a coalition of the Socialist Party, the liberal National Movement Simeon II (NMS) and the mostly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). No party had won enough votes in the June 2005 poll outright, but under the impetus of negotiations to enter the EU, the three reached an agreement to form a government.
Eroded by recent corruption scandals, the most prominent of which led to the suspension of the economy and energy minister, socialist Roumen Ovchearov, the government coalition fared worse than expected in the European Parliament elections.
According to the results released by Bulgaria's Central Electoral Commission, the Socialist Party will have five MEPs (Members of the European Parliament), the MRF four, and the NMS one.
The ultra-nationalist party Ataka, one of the main opposition forces, will have three representatives in the European Parliament. Its supporters, although numerous, have little appetite for European affairs so they did not come out to vote.
The same holds true for the Bulgarian electorate in general: turnout was particularly low, at just 28.6 percent. Apart from heavy rains, it was also caused by "the little understanding of the role and importance of the European Parliament, which is in part caused by ineffective campaigns," explains Philip Gounev, a political analyst with the Centre for the Study of Democracy in Sofia.
The biggest surprise of the elections, however, was the performance of GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria), a party established only in 2006. In what was seen as the first electoral test for GERB, the opposition party won about the same percentage of votes as the Socialists and will have five MEPs.
GERB's success is partly due to the public's frustration with the other older political parties. Ani Gesheva, who works as an intern at a Sofia bank, said "Bulgarians are looking for another party, a party that can better implement changes; like in the times when Simeon's party was winning votes."
But the main reason for GERB's strong performance is the sympathy sparked by its founder, Boiko Borisov, whose popularity "could be due to his ability to express himself in a clear and simple way, his tendency to criticise the ruling coalition, yet not criticise other parties and organisations, and his tendency to explain his own party's flaws through faults of his opponents," Gesheva told IPS.
Analyst Gounev agrees: "Boiko Borisov is the real winner of these elections."
"He definitely put his party on the political map. It gives him a necessary boost for the local elections in the fall, and paves the road for his future political career. Unless something goes really wrong for him, he could be the next prime minister in 2009," Gounev told IPS.
On May 21, only a few hours after the first exit polls were made public, Borisov called for early parliamentary elections to take place towards the end of 2007, alongside the local elections, rather than the normal term, which is in 2009. If elections take place in 2007, Borisov stands a good chance of becoming Bulgaria's next prime minister.
The GERB founder has had a fulminating political career. He has been the mayor of Sofia since 2005, not as a result of elections, but by replacing Stefan Sofianski, who became a member of the national assembly.
Before 1989, he worked for the Ministry of Internal Affairs and was a coach of the national karate team. In the early 1990s, he founded a security company which guarded former Communist leader Todov Jivkov and former King Simeon II. He then went back to work for the Ministry of Internal Affairs where, between 2001 and 2005, he was a secretary general.
Gounev explains that Borisov started building his public profile while occupying this latter position: "His instinct for politics is quite strong... He built a very good image and courted the media during the years as a secretary general at the ministry. He was on TV every day, talking about breaking up organised crime groups."
His tough talk is appreciated by the Bulgarian public. Corruption and crime are seen as the country's most serious problems at the moment.
A report issued by the European Commission in May 2006 stated that, since 2000, there had been more than 150 contract killings in Bulgaria linked to organised crime, and not one person convicted.
While Borisov portrays himself as a crusader against crime, an article published in March 2007 by the U.S. publication "Congressional Quarterly" cast a dark light over his commitment to justice.
Citing "a confidential risk-analysis investigation of Bulgaria commissioned by a private bank," the author states Borisov himself is involved with organised crime. "The most powerful politician in Bulgaria... is a close associate of known mobsters and linked to almost 30 unresolved murders in the Black Sea republic," states the first paragraph of the piece.
The article caused a media frenzy in Bulgaria. Borisov rushed to deny the accusations and invited the author to visit Bulgaria "at his convenience". The politician added: "Should you come to Bulgaria, you will have the opportunity to talk with me and receive answers to all your pressing questions."
Borisov resorted again to the simple and direct approach that Bulgarians appreciate.
Author: Claudia Ciobanu