Going by the claims of organisers, more than a million signatures have been collected to demand that Bulgaria’s Parliament agrees to the holding of a national referendum on electoral law reform.
If the figure is accurate and stands up to official scrutiny, it will be more than double the statuory minimum required for requiring Parliament to call a referendum.
At issue is President Rossen Plevneliev’s call in January for the 42nd National Assembly to agree to the holding of a referendum on three issues – a majoritarian element in the election of MPs, compulsory voting and electronic voting – and for this question to be put to Bulgarian citizens when they go to vote on May 25 2014 in European Parliament elections.
In collaboration, the parties of the ruling axis, the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, already have voted in the legal affairs committee on Parliament to reject Plevneliev’s call.
The ruling axis has said that Plevneliev wants to sabotage the BSP’s own recently-approved electoral laws – which Plevneliev has said he will veto, to which the parties in power responded that they will seek the National Assembly’s agreement to override Plevneliev’s veto.
According to constitutional law professor Georgi Bliznashki, who heads the committee to gather the signatures for a petition in support of Plevneliev’s referendum proposal, by February 27 more than 500 000 signatures had been gathered.
Further, centre-right opposition party GERB – alone among the parties in the 42nd National Assembly to have supported Plevneliev’s call – said that it had garnered more than 500 000 signatures.
If the figure of more than a million is true, it would be a signal achievement in Bulgaria’s post-communist system.
The only other political force to have raised signatures for a referendum is the BSP itself, when it was in opposition and was on the stump for the building of the Russian-linked Belene nuclear power station project, which the then-GERB government had said it would scuttle.
The BSP presented 700 000 votes, of which – after an official check – just more than 500 000 were pronounced to be genuine.
There have been other initiatives for referenda. Far-right ultra-nationalist party Ataka, frustrated after the Constitutional Court threw out the motion it had got through Parliament calling for the extension of the moratorium on the sale of land to foreigners, said that it would raise a petition for a referendum on the issue. This sign-in campaign was announced in late 2013, but apart from a few billboards depicting a black lion and the words “hands off Bulgarian land”, nothing of substance has been heard of the Ataka campaign since.
More recently, Nikolai Barekov, the former television talk show host around whom the “Bulgaria Without Censorship” party has been formed, said that he would raise a petition for the impeachment of Plevneliev. Whether anything will come of the bid for the headlines by Barekov, who even by the raucous standards of Bulgarian politicians is somewhat shouty, remains to be seen.
Nonetheless, a collection of a million signatures from Bulgarian citizens represents a substantial share of Bulgaria’s population – overall about 7.1 million allowing for demographic shrinkage after the 2011 census, of whom just more than six million have the right to vote.
Meanwhile, Blizhnashki and the initiative committee on the petition for the referendum on electoral issues are taking no chances.
He told local media on February 27 that the petition would remain open for the next few days “in order to build reserves”.
Bliznashki said that the ad hoc committee formed to get signatures for the petition intended submitting it to the National Assembly on March 10.
The National Assembly would have a three-month deadline to decide on recommending a referendum date (which actually is announced by the head of state) meaning that the parties in power could delay the vote until after May 25.
Political observers have commented that the BSP, second-ranked in the May 2013 parliamentary elections, fears the effect that a referendum could have on voter turnout, by bringing citizens to the polls to make their tick on the issues – and while there, voting against the ruling axis.