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Democracy in Bulgaria shrinks further with new changes to election law

The 'triangle of power' in Sofia. Left the Government building, center the Parliament, right the office of the President. [Georgi Gotev]

By Krassen Nikolov

The Bulgarian Parliament practically banned voters from rearranging the party’s lists for the elections for MPs, MEPs and local councils. The amendment, which in fact revokes the preferential system, was imposed mainly with the votes of the ruling party GERB and the Turkish minority party DPS which is acting as an informal partner tof Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.

Another huge scandal is that the European elections in Bulgaria will be held under a Central Election Commission the mandate of which has expired. The citizens do not have confidence in the judicial system. They think that it is controlled by political and corporate interests.

Against this backdrop the ruling coalition with the support of DPS have created a legal opportunity to harass the few remaining investigative journalists and media.

So far Bulgaria has been the Eastern European country that has created the smallest problems for Brussels in terms of rule of law. But there are signs that this is about to change. The law amendments are being made against the will of voters. That has become a trademark for Balkan politics in recent years.

Phenomenal political hypocrisy

In 2016 the Bulgarians supported with a huge majority the national referendum for the introduction of a majority system for the parliamentary elections. The referendum was organized at the initiative of showman Slavi Trifonov and his team. It fell short of a few thousand votes to oblige the National Assembly to change the law. GERB leader Boyko Borissov then promised that a law amendment introducing majority vote would be made.

GERB proposed the amendments but the other parliamentary parties did not support them. Thus, the will of 2.5 million Bulgarians (out of 6 million with the right to vote) was disregarded. At that time there was well-founded criticism of the majority voting system. In the Bulgarian context it favors three major parties – GERB, DPS and the socialist BSP, while smaller formations would have been excluded from the political process. The reason is that it is almost impossible for them to win 50% of the votes in the electoral districts.

However, there was a back-up option for majority voting. The Bulgarian law provided a good opportunity for people to make changes to party lists via the preferential voting. For example, parties need 120,000 votes to send a representative to the European Parliament, but only 10,000 votes could change the party list ranking and send someone else. So the future MEP (provided he or she appears on the list) would be chosen by the people, instead of the party’s leadership. This was the strongest majority element in the Bulgarian electoral system.

The news is that GERB has put an end to this single majority opportunity, with extreme political hypocrisy. The minimum number of votes for changing the party lists was increased more than tenfold. Thus, the preferential vote was practically eliminated. Borisov’s party demonstrated complete sheer disrespect for its own voters, given that 20% of the GERB MPs were elected by preferential vote at the last parliamentary elections.

Political deal and outrage

As this website already said, changes to the Electoral Code are a consequence of the growing role of DPS. The party backed a €1-billion deal to buy US fighters F-16 [as proposed by Borissov] and immediately called for changes to the Electoral Code. GERB took on board some of these requests, including the abolition of preferential voting.

DPS has always been against this form of voting for one simple reason. The [mostly ethnic Turkish] electorate of the party is confused and has difficulties with the complex ballots. In all elections DPS has had the largest number of invalid ballot and a part of the voters chaotically point preferences which messes up the plans of the party leaders. It has happened that DPS MPs elected by preferential voting were not confirmed [another example of political exotics in Bulgaria].

Changes in the Electoral Code deepen the problems in the ruling coalition. GERB and the three nationalist parties from the United Patriots haven’t voted united for a single important issue for months. This further pushes GERB to fulfil the wishes of DPS. As strange as it may sound, VMRO nationalists who are in the government with GERB insist that the president [elected on a BSP ticket] vetoes the amendments in the Electoral Code.

I can’t believe

“As a representative of a ruling party – I can’t believe that I’m insisting for a veto,” VMRO MP Alexander Sidi said.

The opposition BSP has also reacted sharply to the changes: “The victory against the preferential system is a political crime, it will explode in the faces of those who make the experiment. The urban centre-right [outside Parliament] may be gathering 90 people (for a protest), but tomorrow there would be more. People want their voice to be heard and now it cannot be”, Alexander Simov, a BSP MP warned. The urban centre-right is Democratic Bulgaria, the force where the largest proportion of voters use the preferential vote.

GERB was silent during the whole debate and DPS hasted saying that there was no deal with Borissov. MP Yordan Tsonev (DPS) defended the changes with absurd arguments. According to him, the parties are a “brand” that is even comparable to Adidas and it’s better for people not to mess in their decisions. In his opinion the majority element in the election was tantamount to controlled vote. He did not find it necessary to prove his thesis.

In response, Anton Kutev (BSP) hinted that DPS MP and media magnate Delyan Peevsky were the brightest example of a corporate vote, although he didn’t mention his name directly.

The veto is inevitable

President Rumen Radev has made it clear he will veto the changes in the Electoral Code. According to him, they guarantee a victory by default for the ruling parties.

“Those on power don’t even try to hide their plan to obtain victory by default via the changes in the Electoral Code… The changes undermine the democratic character and the transparency of the electoral process,” he said.

Media control

Two days before the scandal with the changes in the election legislation, the parliament adopted a law that opens huge opportunity for additional media censorship. Bulgaria is last in terms of media freedom in the EU. Now the problem is likely to get worse.

With the Personal Data Protection Law the MPs oblige journalists to consider 10 criteria for personal data protection for every publication. The media will be subject to checks by the Commission for Personal Data Protection, which can impose serious fines.

The changes were pushed through using GDPR as an excuse, although the European regulation excludes restrictions on journalism, statistics and research. From now on, the small number of free media still left in the country might start to censor themselves, fearing heavy fines.

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