Plevneliev’s referendum proposal: The consequences of saying no

Written by on February 3, 2014 in Perspectives - No comments

Bulgarian politics is a cacophonous business, but ever since President Rossen Plevneliev said that he would propose a referendum on the electoral system, the howls of indignation and rejection from the ruling axis and its allied media and political commentators have reached particularly strident levels of raucousness.

Plevneliev announced on January 29 2014 that he would ask the National Assembly to agree to the holding of a referendum on electoral law issues, with the vote to be held on the same day as Bulgaria’s European Parliament elections.

He said that he would invoke his lawful right to propose to the National Assembly the holding of a national referendum on three questions:

  • Do you agree that some of the lawmakers should be elected by majoritarian vote?
  • Do you support the introduction of compulsory voting in elections and national referendums?
  • Do you support electronic voting in elections and national referendums?

He made the announcement in a special address on Bulgaria’s public broadcasters just before 8pm, catching most major political party leaders flat-footed, leaving only second-string members of the parties of the ruling axis to issue the first rejection notes.

However, by the following morning, those who despise Plevneliev, the head of state who currently is the last remnant of former ruling party GERB’s omnipresence in offices of state, were out of the starting blocks.

The attacks ran along various lines.

One was that Plevneliev was seeking to “sabotage” the rewritten electoral laws that the Bulgarian Socialist Party, with the assistance of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and ultra-nationalists Ataka, have been rushing on to the statute books ahead of the European Parliament elections. Another was that Plevneliev was seeking to “shift the focus” in debate ahead of those elections. There was even the notion that a referendum on electoral laws might not be an entirely bad thing, but Plevneliev’s proposal left too little time between now and the end of May to properly inform the electorate about the issues.

This last point seems somewhat to ignore that from the streets of Bulgaria, there have been impassioned calls for electoral reform for about a year.

Ironically, notwithstanding the diametrically opposite purposes of the February 2013 and June 2013 street protests – the first to bring down the GERB government of the time, the second to bring down the current ruling axis in which the BSP formally holds the mandate to govern – there has been much talk of a profound need to change Bulgaria’s electoral system.

A year ago, a popular cry was for compulsory “citizens’ quotas” in the electoral system, to break the hegemony of established formal political parties in the country’s legislatures. Invoking the memories of previous watershed protests, in particular those that brought down discredited BSP governments of yore, there were demands for a Grand National Assembly to rewrite the constitution.

But, leaving aside the stated objections about “sabotage” and “focus-shifting”, there were and are genuine political problems for the ruling axis in being faced with Plevneliev’s proposal.

First, it comes from Plevneliev. As Tatyana Doncheva, a former BSP member of Parliament now estranged from that party, put it on breakfast television on the morning after his announcement, the governing principle for those now in power is that anything that Plevneliev might propose must automatically be rejected.

Second, the threat it represents to Bulgaria’s political class is simply too grave to be borne. As one cynic put it in a comment in the Bulgarian-language press, the peasants could not be allowed to have the temerity to want a say in the future of the how the country is run. (To this it may be added that the clear signals sent from the streets of Bulgaria in the past year about what Bulgarians think of their politicians appear to be increasingly blithely ignored, with the same form of deep denial with which those in power have ignored the anti-government protests.)

Apart from the “principle” objections to the proposal for a referendum, the questions themselves came under attack.

They were described as “too vague”. Left-wing political commentator Kolyo Kolev attacked the substance of the questions, saying that electronic voting would open the way for vote-buying while mandatory voting was unconstitutional because voting was a right, not an obligation.

These attacks on substance left aside, of course, that Plevneliev had put out proposed questions for a referendum, not concrete proposals as such, and in the case of mandatory voting, was referring to proposals made by politicians – in this case, notably, GERB itself. (Boiko Borissov’s party even has advanced a rather weird idea of rewarding people for complying with a putative law on compulsory voting.)

Notably, it was not only those in the parties of the ruling axis who rejected Plevneliev’s idea of a referendum. So did his own Vice President, Margarita Popova, who by the by has emerged as a figure of footnote interest in recent months. For some reason, at least apparently because of statements attributed to her about the anti-government protests – remarks she regards as misquoted or misunderstood – the little band of pro-government demonstrators that gathered outside the Presidency have been wont to demand the departure of Plevneliev and his replacement as head of state by Popova.

In the days since Plevneliev’s proposal, there also have been some variations in tone in the responses from the ruling axis. Senior BSP member Georgi Pirinski said on February 3 that the party still had not formally taken a position on the proposal, while in an interview published by mass-circulation daily Trud the same day, foreign minister Kristian Vigenin – while speaking out against holding such a referendum on the day of the European Parliament elections because it would “shift the focus” – said that “we can reflect on the idea of a referendum, maybe on other and better formulated questions, but let us not do so simultaneously with the European elections”.

Vigenin’s statement was, at least, more beguiling (whatever “other and better formulated questions” might mean, if anything) than the approach taken by the government’s media allies, which have been persisting in running articles alleging that the President is secretly working with his lawyers to turn Bulgaria into a presidential republic, the unmistakeable implication being that Plevneliev is plotting a dictatorship.

However, for all the hysteria on the part of the parties in power, there have been supporters of the idea, leaving aside the somewhat predictable support from GERB, the party on whose ticket Plevneliev was elected head of state in 2011.

On January 31, daily Sega ran an article by commentator Petyo Tsekov arguing that opposing the referendum was a blow to democracy.

“One cannot have proclaimed that the entire state power arises from the people, and praise themselves that according to the constitution, they represent the entire people, and at the same time hold that the simple, stupid and mendacious plebeians should not express their opinions because they might be wrong and upset the sacred order,” Tsekov said.

A day later, the same daily said that Plevneliev’s idea was supported by several political analysts and elections experts. Sega added that the real fear among the ruling parties was that the attraction of a referendum vote on the day of the European Parliament elections would increase turnout for the latter, to the detriment of the incumbents.

This latter argument is a sound one. Going by several polls, a backfire for the anti-government protests, however much they are supported by the vast majority of Bulgarians, is that the threat has mobilised BSP supporters (a trend that emerged, of course, before the current confusion in left-wing ranks caused by the re-emergence of Georgi Purvanov’s ABC movement).

That mobilisation comes on top of the fact that the BSP is the longest-established major party in the country, given that it is the lineal successor to the Bulgarian Communist Party, and provided that its structures work properly, can get very far just by getting out its own traditional vote – but in turn is threatened by a turnout of those who would vote for some other party, should something happen to get them to the voting booths.

Support for the Plevneliev proposal also came from constitutional law professor Georgi Bliznashki, in an interview with public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio.

“The way he (Plevneliev) has formulated his proposal makes it clear that this referendum is a consultative one, that is, the details will have to be set later, if the Bulgarian people want a majoritarian vote, compulsory and online voting”.

Asked to respond to claims by Maya Manolova, the socialist member of Parliament who has driven the new election law, that compulsory and online voting would violate the constitution, Bliznashki said that the main issue was the majoritarian principle.

“I have been repeating constantly over the past few months that we have to return to the way we did it back in the early 1990s. We held the polls for the Grand National Assembly then with a mixed voting system – 50:50.

“Something simply has to be done after 220 days of protests that have been observed with mixed feelings across the entire globe – because the governing parties do not intend to comply with public opinion at all,” Bliznashki said.

“No matter what you hear, the proposals of Mrs. Maya Manolova within the new Election Code actually fortify the status quo, rather than providing any possibilities for changes. The voice of the civic society must be heard, it’s about time. This can happen via the implementation of a majoritarian element,” he said.

Bliznashki noted that the Constitutional Court had expressed reservations about the idea of online voting because of concerns about the secrecy of such a vote. This, he said, was an issue for technical experts to resolve. In an information age, online voting in Bulgaria was an inevitably, he said.

According to Bliznashki, there was a strongly distorted picture in the place of the political forces in society and their presence in Parliament. Something needed to be done to correct this situation, he said.

“I don’t think there are Bulgarian citizens that feel contented with the state of our political system. We all see now that the political parties themselves are the main problem.”

For now, it seems a certain enough prediction that when Plevneliev asks the 42nd National Assembly to approve his proposal for a referendum, the BSP, MRF and Ataka will stick to their customary collaboration to reject it.

And that will lead to the ultimate consequence – that when a chance was presented for Bulgarians to be given a say other than through the conventional means of an election ballot paper, those politicians who speak so piously about “public councils”, “consultations with civil society” and for that matter, “democracy”, said no.

(Photo of Plevneliev: Nato.int)

Comments

comments

About the Author

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015).