December 27 2012 sees the opening of the official campaigning period ahead of Bulgaria’s national referendum, a process that will cost close to 14 million leva (about seven million euro) and that critics deride as deliberately meaningless.
The question in the referendum will be “Do you approve the development of nuclear power engineering in the Republic of Bulgaria through the construction of another nuclear power plant?” – making no reference to the Belene drama that prompted the political opposition’s campaign for a referendum on the long-delayed nuclear power station.
Going by opinion polls, most Bulgarians favour further development of nuclear energy in Bulgaria, whatever their views on nuclear energy specifically. More or less, both of Bulgaria’s two largest political parties will campaign for a yes vote, though, oddly, two of the most prominent politicians associated with the ruling party have said that they will vote no.
President Rossen Plevneliev, who was elected head of state on the ticket of centre-right ruling party GERB but whose constitutional role is intended to be above partisan politics, has said that he will vote no. Plevneliev also has urged Bulgarians to bear in mind that they are meant to be voting about a principle, not about a specific project. But he told local media that he would vote against because the Belene project would impose far too serious a financial drain on the economy of Bulgaria.
Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, whose Cabinet decided in March 2012 to cancel the Belene project but whose party subsequently sent mixed signals about reviving debate on the matter (prompted in part by the emergency of a mystery investor, a US-registered company whose public face largely was that of Bulgarian consultants), reportedly also has said that he will vote no.
Also in the yes camp are parties of no real significance in Bulgarian domestic politics, such as the one originally founded around former monarch Simeon Saxe-Coburg, which when in government in 2003 officially revived the Belene project.
Some right-wing minority parties, generally opposed to anything with a Russian link, will be campaigning for a no vote. They object not only to the Belene project, which consultants reported ahead of the March 2012 Cabinet decision would produce massively expensive electricity while no Western investor was interested, but also to the referendum itself, saying that it was a needless costly exercise at a time that Bulgaria needs the money for other things.
Not represented in Parliament but likely to have a small share of seats after the 2013 parliamentary elections, Meglena Kouneva’s Bulgaria for Citizens party has called for a boycott of the referendum, arguing that whatever the outcome, the referendum is a meaningless exercise. Because Belene is not mentioned, a yes vote would not represent a mandate for building it. Nor would a no vote be binding. Kouneva has argued that the referendum is pointless also because most Bulgarians are in favour of the principle of having more nuclear energy, making the January 27 2013 referendum nothing more than a wildly expensive public opinion survey for which taxpayers will have to bear the costs.
The referendum also could be used as a profile-building exercise for “eco” parties and organisations in Bulgaria, although while some claim the Greens label, the country lacks an environmental issues party of any major significance.
Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Simeon Dyankov was appointed by the Cabinet to oversee the implementation of the referendum, including budget matters and technical and organizational co-ordination ahead of the vote, while the Central Election Commission will deal with the voting process and the proclamation of the result in the same way that it does in presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections.
Voting will be by simple yes or no options on a white ballot paper, and voters must use blue ink pens to mark their ballots.
Anyone who had Bulgarian citizenship at the date of the Presidential decree for the scheduling of the referendum; has a permanent address in Bulgaria; is over the age of 18, and is not in detention or serving a jail sentence is eligible to vote.
It will be possible to vote abroad, at Bulgarian embassies and consulates, though no other voting stations abroad will be opened. Citizens abroad will have to give notice in advance of their intention to vote, by January 1 2013, in writing, or a scanned letter in pdf or tiff format.
The application form would be available on the websites of the Foreign Ministry and the Central Election Commission (CEC), the CEC said in mid-December.
In addition to the funding for the referendum, the Cabinet also has given funding to public broadcasters Bulgarian National Television and Bulgarian National Radio for referendum programming. Rival committees, for and against, headed respectively by Stefan Vodenicharov and by Ivan Ivanov and Maria Capon, will take part in pre-referendum programmes.
The official campaigning period closes at midnight on January 25, with a “day of contemplation” ahead of the January 27 vote.
(Main photo: Rama)