There are two possible hypotheses why did DFA lose the local elections in 1999, which in many districts were won by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP).
The first hypothesis is based on real life events such as the big unemployment rate, the economical stagnation, the inner circle of friends to whom special favors were done, the corruption, which could be also included in the previous group, or the inner political disagreements in the party itself. All these together could have disappointed the electorate.
This hypothesis sounds logical but it is not full by its scope. It explains the political success or failure as a reflection of real life events, which is not true, since the political success of the candidates depends primarily on their electoral campaign. That is why I am going to present my alternative hypothesis, which is based on my knowledge on electoral campaigning.
I believe that the reasons why DFA failed during the elections are not so much influenced from the real life events, which I described above, but merely on their lack of understanding how an electoral campaign needs to be organized. I think that they have chosen the wrong focus of their strategy.
There are to primary strategies for organizing electoral campaigns:
a) personal oriented- each candidate does their own campaign, has their own staff of image-makers and public relations specialists; and
b) party oriented – the campaign is common for the entire party and their respective candidates and it is managed by a centralized headquarter.
If the first strategy is used during a campaign, the focus should be on the personal qualities of the political candidate. If the second strategy is used, the campaign works for building up the trademark of the party or the coalition, who are competing in the elections. Usually the first strategy is used in majority elections and the second one in parliamentary election with a proportional system. A combination of the two strategies could be used as well.
Exactly this was the case with DFA during the local elections in 1999. They used a hybrid between personal and party oriented strategies and their choice turned out to be the wrong one.
The campaign was obviously party oriented. There was a big stress on the trademark of the party not on the personal qualities of the candidates. On the other hand, although that a central headquarter seemingly existed, in every big town each candidate for mayor was doing their own campaign with their own strategy, absolutely cut off not only from the central headquarter but also from the rest of the local campaigns. Seemingly they had a common electoral information field, but no one was actually working on it. The direct manager of the local candidates was not the DFA’s headquarter, but local party curators, who were responsible for their districts and who, by my humble opinion, were not professionals, concerning the contemporary electoral campaigning techniques. The very Bakardzhiev’s staff (who was suppose to play the role of the central headquarter), who were suppose to be the professionals, had no idea what they were suppose to be doing.
Since the elections were local it is normally to think that it is good to give the candidates the opportunity to run their own campaigns, to have their own public relations managers, to have their own contribution to the electoral process. It turned out after all that in the case of 1999 it was not such a good idea. The problem was that due to the strong focus on the trademark of the party, each candidate’s screw-ups, had enormous influence not only on their campaign but on the commonly exploited by the other DFA candidates party trademark, i.e. they were harming not only themselves but their party colleagues as well.
The best example was the Varna elections, where there was a big scandal with the diploma of the ‘blue’ candidate Dobrin Mitev, as well as the buy-off of the whole issue of the “Monitor” newspaper from his people, in order to cover up a story published there, which could have harmed his image. The steps undertaken by Mitev normally would be totally vetoed by any respectable image-maker, since they would immediately be blown up by the competition. The aftermath was that not only Mr. Mitev, but also the party, which promoted him, were compromised. If any DFA candidates were making good campaigns and were managing to safeguard themselves against mistakes this was only for their own benefit. It remained hidden for the common campaign. Not only it could not clear the image of the common trademark harmed by others, but it was not beneficial in any way, generally looking on the party focused strategy.
The big mistake that the DFA party leaders did was to believe that their trade mark is much better positioned than the one of the other parties. They wrongly thought that betting entirely on it would bring a better distinction during the elections. It turned out that this was not the right tactic at the moment, moreover that their trademark was actually not well positioned at all.
Positioning in marketing is defined as building up a solid association between the trademark and some qualities of the product or the customer. The positioning should have two possible answers to the customer’s question: “Why would I buy your product?” The first one is: “Because our product is …” and the second one: “Because you are…” giving descriptive definitions on the place of the dots. Electoral campaigning is very much like marketing, it seeks to find, acquire and keep customers. The candidate and his platform are the product and the electorate is the customer. During a campaign the trademark can be associated with some king of ideology; with a sum of practical solutions; with class; national or religion indication of the voter; or even with pure propaganda and set of words used by the candidates.
Starting from 1990, DFA seems to have run negative campaigns, i.e. they have been positioning their trademark negatively, usually against the enemies of the people, trying to create the image of the blue party being the one who would save them. DFA have not said, “We are…” stating the profile of their image, but “We are struggling against…” Even now they are using the enemy of the people, the corruption, as their main focus. No wonder that the big victories for DFA were exactly when the image of the enemy was the most feasible and closest to the reality (1996-1997, 1990-1991). DFA never succeeded in positioning their trademark positively.
It turned out that they could not associate themselves with particular actions because the previous governments had been ruling by the same principles. There was also no ground for class positioning, because 80% from the people by that time belonged to the poor class, and DFA’s primary voters were coming from the so called by the Romans riff-raff proletariat. There was no prospective future for positioning against an ideology, because there is not an appropriate class this ideology to be aimed to. The middle and the rich class were minority by that time. The so called substitute of ideology “the ideology of the transition” was also much compromised. Practically DFA could have associated themselves probably with a certain set of words to be used by the leaders during their interviews in the mass media. The problem was that those words were very much eroded in the societal mind, and were caring no meaning.
The biggest disgrace of DFA was not the result of the elections itself, but the fact that although that they had financial, media’s advantage, as well as the support of the local authorities, they still lost against the less resourceful opposition. If the result of the elections would have been measured by the resources invested in them, DFA should have won with at least 90% of the votes.
The opposition could not afford such a mass campaign like DFA did. Moreover that the trademarks of the opposition parties, after 1997, were even worse positioned than the one of DFA, for anyone to hope that any of their campaigns would bring enough votes. That is why the only possible campaign for them was the personally oriented one.
In some places those personal campaigns were very powerful, especially where professional image-makers were used. In Varna and Bourgas for example the BSP candidates defeated DFA tactically and strategically and as a result of this they have won in the majority of the districts. Due to the bigger focus on party oriented campaign of DFA, its losses in some places demoralized their sustained voters in others.
The losses on local level on the other hand were leaving the opposition image intact, because most of the candidates were counting not on party-collectivistic approach, but on personal and local patriotic image. Exactly this local patriotic image was a very powerful trump, which they exploited successfully. It is very interesting how the opposition turned the appearance of DFA in the media, especially on the national TV, to their advantage.
The national TV was viewed at that time as an instrument for propaganda in the hands of the ‘blue’ party. It is also well know that outside of the capital the national TV was viewed as “Sofia TV”. Since the central political power informational service was mainly the national TV, many people outside of Sofia, associated the DFA with the town of Sofia. Since all the DFA candidates for mayors were having constant presence on the national TV, it was creating the impression that they are Sofia people, disregarding who was actually promoting them – the local DFA party or the central headquarter. Moreover that the DFA headquarter was additionally strengthening this impression by constantly imposing personnel directives in the national TV, thus transforming it in a way convenient for them.
Unfortunately DFA repeated most of the mistakes they made in 1999 on the local elections in 2003, again allowing BSP to take big part of the local mayors. I am curious to see how the forthcoming parliamentary elections will go.
Richards Paul. How to Win an Election. The Art of Political campaigning. London: Politico’s Publishing. 2001
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