Buying the elections

A few hundreds of leva can buy dozens of votes. [ClubZ]

Vote-buying continues to be a serious problem in Bulgaria. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe have recognised it on multiple occasions. International organizations criticised Bulgarian authorities even after the last parliamentary elections in 2017. The problem is also acknowledged as such domestically. Krassen Nikolov has the story.

The former Prosecutor General and current head of the Bulgarian Constitutional Court, Boris Velchev, made a key statement on the issue of vote-buying back in 2007:

“I was appalled by vote-buying. Not that it is a new phenomenon, it is not, but I asked myself why are millions of leva been invested with such a passion, just to secure the positions of key people in the local governments, who are backed by powerful business structures. I asked myself, what are these structures? And I answered myself as a citizen, not as a prosecutor because I still have no official information to comment. Obviously, it is not the large legitimate businesses, which take part in these schemes. Rather, what we have at play here is shady businesses, which rely on getting its people inside the local governments, who in turn would not govern in the public’s interest but and will not safeguard the European funds, but instead will be working to thank their sponsors. This worries me a lot because it means that Bulgaria has a large circle of personal interests and vast amount of dark funding resources.”, Velchev said back then.

Over the past 12 years, almost nothing has changed, except that buying votes became part of the Penal Code. The penalties for such an offense is up to 8 years in prison and up to 20,000 leva in fines. Authorities may bug or watch a suspect. This doesn’t seem to be of much concern to the vote brokers and the voting business is still a massive phenomenon, especially among the Roma minorities.

The police and prosecutors capture mainly the small fish, who generally get off with probation or a provisional sentence, and often don’t even receive fines. The sense of impunity is the best environment to foster more crime.

There is currently only one MP, who is charged with vote buying: Manol Genov of the Bulgarian Socialist Party. One former MP of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) is also undergoing trial for the same offense, Ilia Iliev. The Prosecutor’s Office fails in such cases: following the local elections in 2015 prosecutors filed 146 cases in court. Only eight of those received sentencing.

The cases shed light on the price some people are willing to sell their vote for. According to prosecutors in 2015 a candidate for the city council of Burgas and an Evangelist pastor visited six low-income families to whom they offered a heater. The candidate had also promised to provide the families with washing machines if they voted for him.

A man from Bourgas was sentenced to pay a 9р000-leva fine for persuading 24 people to vote for a certain candidate for the city council. The voters received small amounts: either they get between 40 and 120 leva (€20 and €60) or the broker settles the voter’s overdue tabs at the local store. The court sentenced another man to pay a 10’000-leva fine for paying out 25 leva per vote in the 2015 local elections in a village near Pleven. Poverty in Bulgaria is a key factor in fostering corruption especially out of desperation.

The largest-scale uncovered case of voter fraud remains the Kostinbrod affair. On 11 May 2013, a day before the parliamentary elections, prosecutors followed up on a tip from a BSP MP and raided a printing house in the town of Kostinbrod where they discovered it was printing illegal ballots. Then-reporter and current European MP Nikolay Barekov (ECR) widely reported the scandal, and this is how the infamous ‘counterfeit ballots’ affair became known to the wider public in Bulgaria. At the time Nikolay Barekov was CEO and show host at TV7, a network entirely financed by the Corporate Commercial Bank (KTB), which collapsed a year later.

During the 2013 parliamentary elections, GERB did not win the majority in Parliament, and BSP and DPS formed the ruling coalition. Months later the Kostinbrod affair, for which the Prosecutor’s Office initially claimed is a crime against citizens’ political rights, ended with a fiasco in court. The only defendant in the case was the chief secretary in the first cabinet of current PM Boyko Borissov’s, Rosen Zhelyazkov, who currently holds the position of minister of transport. Then BSP’s Maya Manolova, who is now Bulgaria’s national ombudsman, was the one who informed authorities of the affair back then.

The possible solutions for the problem of voter buying are chiefly machine and electronic voting. Implementing new technologies tend to sever the link between political brokers and their clients. Machine voting makes it impossible to snap the ballot inside the voting booth, which is typically done to give as evidence to the broker that they cast the vote accordingly.

The political will to introduce this method of voting on a massive scale, however, is absent. The electronic voting system on the other hand will not be introduced before 2020 because the government keeps extending the deadline for introducing personal IDs with biometric data. The government will limit machine voting to about 1000 voting stations out of 12,000 in total across the country although there is a court decision obligating the government to provide machine voting everywhere. The reason is that Bulgaria cannot provide enough machines. The opposition has called the government’s rationale “absurd”.

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