Bulgaria’s nuclear referendum implodes?

Preliminary results in Bulgaria’s January 27 2013 referendum on the future of nuclear energy in the country showed a 60 per cent “yes” vote but also left unanswered the question whether voter turnout had been too low for the referendum to be valid.

According to pollsters, by the time polls closed at 7pm Sofia time, just more than 60 per cent had voted yes and 39.5 per cent had voted no. Voter turnout was said to be just more than 21 per cent by some polling agencies but just less than 20 per cent by others.

The significance of the 20 per cent threshold was, if it was surpassed, the referendum outcome would not be decisive but would be referred to Parliament. Less than 20 per cent would mean implosion of the exercise.

The question in the referendum was “Should the nuclear power industry in Bulgaria be developed by building a new nuclear power plant?”. Although its name was omitted, the referendum effectively was about whether to proceed with the officially-abandoned long-standing plan to build a new nuclear power station at Belene on the Danube.

For the referendum to be valid, a turnout of 4 345 450 voters was required, out of a theoretical total of 6 949 120 voters, with at least half of the voters recording a “yes” vote. The rules were that should voter turnout exceed 20 per cent but not reach 60 per cent, the question is referred to the National Assembly, Bulgaria’s unicameral Parliament.

Should a 60 per cent turnout have been achieved, the result of the referendum would have been technically persuasive, even though detractors of the referendum – and many in the boycott camp – decried the question and its implications as meaningless.

The 14 million leva (about seven million euro) exercise was prompted by a campaign in 2012 led by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, which was stung by the centre-right Cabinet’s decision in March 2012 to officially abandon the Belene nuclear power station project.

After sufficient signatures were appended to the petition for it to be tabled in Parliament, the ruling party GERB voted in favour of having a referendum, although – as noted – after President Rossen Plevneliev held consultations on the wording of the question with parties represented in Parliament, and the question was formally drafted and voted on in Parliament, the direct reference to Belene was omitted.

Prime Minister Boiko Borissov and his GERB party were accused of flip-flopping on the Belene issue, especially after it emerged that a “mystery investor” had come forward in the second half of 2012 that supposedly was interested in putting up the money for the project.

Bulgarians abroad also were entitled to vote, provided arrangements were made in advance, but embassies experienced less than a torrent of voters.

The Foreign Minister said that at 3pm Bulgarian time, the highest voter turnout abroad in the national referendum had been in Brussels, where 205 citizens had voted. By that hour, 161 people had voted in London and 152 in Madrid. By 3pm Sofia time, 2256 Bulgarian citizens had voted abroad.

The final polling station abroad to open was Los Angeles, at 4pm Bulgarian time.

In Bulgaria, voter turnout in the capital city Sofia was reported to have been about 10 per cent, with some parts of the city turning in single-digit voter turnout figures.

In some southern parts of the country, heavy snowfall caused traffic disruptions and in much of the Smolyan area, including 37 villages, there were power cuts because of the snow and freezing weather.



The Sofia Globe staff

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