Bulgaria’s National Assembly voted on May 12 to approve the holding of a national referendum on five questions raised in a petition by a television talk show host.
It is expected that the referendum will be held along with presidential elections scheduled for late October or early November 2016.
MPs debated the issue heatedly for two hours, ending with a vote of 131 in favour, 18 against and one registered abstention.
The holding of the referendum was backed mainly by the parties of the ruling majority in the 240-seat Parliament. Those against were the opposition Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which voted en bloc against, one MP from the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party and one from the Reformist Bloc. Volen Siderov’s pro-Russian Ataka minority opposition party did not take part in voting.
The proposal for the referendum was submitted to the National Assembly in February after being initiated by television showman Slavi Trifonov. Of the well more than 600 000 signatures on the petition, more than 500 000 were found by a check by officials to be valid – over the legal threshold of 400 000 compelling the calling of a referendum.
The petition called for six questions, but following a vote a day earlier by Parliament’s legal affairs committee, one was removed, because it was about introducing electronic voting – a topic that drew a yes vote in a 2015 referendum and which already is the subject of legislation.
One question asks whether a system should be introduced of electing MPs through a majoritarian system with an absolute majority in two rounds.
The second asks whether the number of members of the National Assembly should be halved to 120.
A third is about introducing compulsory voting in elections and referendums. In recent weeks, Bulgaria’s Parliament approved election law amendments introducing compulsory voting, but this is expected to be challenged in the Constitutional Court by the opposition MRF, should it raise sufficient signatures from MPs to approach the court.
Another question is whether the annual state subsidy for the financing of political parties and coalitions should be one lev per received valid vote in the most recent parliamentary election.
The fifth asks whether to introduce elections for directors of regional directorates of the Interior Ministry and the heads of regional offices in the district directorates of the ministry, although through a majority voting system requring an absolute majority in two rounds.
In debate on May 12, the MRF, Ataka and socialist MPs said that some of the questions contradicted the constitution. The greatest fuel for debate came – not surprisingly, perhaps – over the question of cutting the number of MPs in half.
Tsvetan Tsvetanov, parliamentary leader of government majority partner GERB, said that the party would not take part in the National Assembly debate because the issues had been debated and resolved in the legal affairs committee.
Mariana Todorova of ABC, the minority party that this week headed into opposition to the government, said that reducing the number of MPs was possibly the most popular question to arouse sympathy and was the “rocket launcher” of the referendum, whatever the arguments about the merits of the issue.
Yanaki Stoilov of the BSP said, “you could put questions about changing the constitution and for the National Assembly to consist of 20 people”.
The nationalist Patriotic Front’s Dimitar Bairaktarov, extending the irony, said: “I do not agree that the National Assembly should be 20 people, why not just abolish it completely and have no statehood”.