With polls suggesting that a proposed national referendum on building a nuclear power station at Belene may be invalid because too few people will turn out to vote, Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Sergei Stanishev has called for lowering the threshold for validity.
Current law provides for calculating the threshold for the validity of a referendum inBulgariaon the basis of recent election voter turnout, meaning that the Belene referendum would require at least 60 per cent voter turnout to be valid.
Speaking to socialist supporters in the capital citySofia, Stanishev reportedly acknowledged that it may be difficult to achieve this turnout.
This is one of the key issues on the road to the referendum, but not the only difficult that the socialists face in a keystone issue for the party ahead of the summer 2013 national parliamentary elections.
Bulgarians are not accustomed to referendums – the most recent was held decades ago – but are used to arguing about Belene, the long-stalled, on-again, off-again nuclear power station project on theDanube.
Most opinion polls in recent years have shown support among ordinary Bulgarians for the project declining, although several show the majority still to be in favour.
A poll by local agency BBSS Gallup in February 2012 – a month before Bulgaria’s Cabinet said that it was “finally” pulling the (not actually installed) plug on the project – showed 48 per cent of Bulgarians in favour of Belene and 15 per cent against, but these figures also showed that both sides had lost supporters who had drifted into the “undecided” category.
According to polling agency MBMD, the “in favour” camp had shrunk from 68 per cent in May 2010 to 54 per cent in May 2011 to a current 32 per cent. In these three polls, the anti-Belene grouping had stayed constant at about 22 per cent.
However, whatever the polls suggest, the socialists did succeed in mustering sufficient signatures to make a formal call for the referendum possible – out of about 717 000 signatures presented, examination found 24 per cent to be invalid, still leaving more than 543 000, enough for the petition to be valid. Again, it may arguably be presumed that at least some of these signatures may be of people who do not want Belene built but do favour a national expression of opinion on the matter.
Timing, meanwhile, is also likely to play a role in the outcome of the referendum saga.
President Rossen Plevneliev has said that he will call the referendum as soon as the parliamentary vote on the matter has been completed, and against a background of indications that the referendum will be held within three months, has hinted that the date might be closer than that.
Ruling party, the centre-right GERB, which dumped Belene in March and then turned about with a willingness to negotiate with a would-be investor, turning about again in favour of the referendum idea, faces a (not that fatal) dilemma. A vote in favour of Belene would be a mandate to negotiate with an investor; on the other hand, a successful vote in favour also would be a symbolic victory for the socialists, the latter long-standing supporters of the Russian-linked project.
Bulgarian-language media, never averse to speculation, already have mooted GERB torpedoing a referendum by challenging it in court either before or after the fact, or even using the “Christmas scenario” by holding the vote during Bulgaria’s Christmas-New Year-name days holiday season, on the theory that an electorate asked to trudge through the snow to cast their ballots would be less inclined to do so, thus depriving the referendum of the turnout required to be valid.
The right-wing Blue Coalition already has said that it would mount a Constitutional Court challenge to the Belene referendum, arguing that the law on referendums does not allow the public to be asked questions related to taxation, social security and the national Budget, the Blue Coalition’s argument being that Belene has a direct bearing on spending from the public purse.
Whatever the Constitutional Court makes of this argument, campaigning in a Belene referendum effectively already has begun – and that against a background of it being a point of dispute for years (including, naturally, by the environmentalist anti-nuclear lobby).
Economy and Energy Minister Delyan Dobrev, reviving the current government’s long-standing argument that Belene is too expensive to be borne, said that the costs of the referendum – estimated at 20 million to 30 million leva (about 10 million to 15 million euro) – should be paid from the state subsidies given to parties represented in Parliament. This would mean that GERB and the socialists would pay the largest shares, he said, adding that in fairness, given that the BSP wanted the referendum so much, they should pay for it themselves.
(Photo: Party of European Socialists/flickr.com)