In the latest twist in the prolonged saga of Bulgaria changing its electoral laws, the National Assembly voted on June 17 to approve the first reading of a new set of amendments tabled by Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB party.
The latest amendments are about the hot-button issue of voting abroad, an issue that has been at the core of political melodrama for months and which appears likely to end in the Constitutional Court.
The amendments approved on June 17, about a month since the National Assembly last approved Electoral Code amendments, were one set of seven tabled for debate and voting. MPs rejected the other six, which came from a range of parties and independent MPs.
The first-reading vote was 111 in favour and 35 against, with 21 abstentions.
The amendments provide that the maximum number of polling stations that may be opened in a foreign country for a Bulgarian election is 35.
GERB MP Danail Kirilov said that the number was based on data for countries where there was the most interested in Bulgarians abroad voting, which he said were the United Kingdom, Spain and the United States.
Philip Popov, of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, asked why GERB had initiated changes to the Electoral Code: “We are left with the reasonable assumption that the ruling majority adopted amendments to the electoral law in order to secure an official advantage in the next election”.
He asked why something – the previous provisions for voting abroad in the law revised at the time the BSP was part of the government in 2013/14 – that had worked was being changed.
On May 7, Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev vetoed earlier amendments to the Electoral Code that cut back the voting rights of Bulgarians abroad. However, this veto was overturned by a National Assembly vote.
Condemning the National Assembly’s rejection of his veto of election law amendments on voting abroad as “the latest occasion that legislators have put their party interests above the constitutional rights of citizens”, Plevneliev said on May 18 that he was taking the amendments to the Constitutional Court.
The controversy began after Parliament approved amendments creating different rules on opening polling stations abroad depending on whether the country involved was in or outside the European Union. Most observers saw the rules, which made it more difficult to open polling stations if a country was outside the EU, as directed against the opposition Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which has a traditional electoral stronghold in non-EU member Turkey.
The various changes to the rules caused protests among Bulgarians in Western countries who said that the amendments were unfair and impractical.