Ahead of parliamentary elections, Bulgaria grapples with vote-buying

Unofficial estimates are that in Bulgaria’s early parliamentary elections on October 5 2014, vote-buying will add up to a 10 million leva business – a figure close to half the sum that the elections will cost taxpayers.

Vote-buying has plagued Bulgarian elections for years, with media exposes of the trade having become commonplace in recent years, although serious penalties for those caught have been few.

Reports by international observers and bodies that monitor elections generally have noted vote-buying as a problem, but none has called the overall legitimacy of elections in Bulgaria into question.

Part of Bulgaria makes up the poorest region of the European Union of which the country has been a member since January 2007. This poverty aggravates the susceptibility of people to selling their votes.

Antoaneta Tsoneva of NGO the Institute for Public Environment Development, speaking on September 15 to local television station Nova Televizia, said that the greatest risk of vote-buying was in north-western Bulgaria – the cities of Vidin, Lom and Montana – as well as in Bulgaria’s Black Sea cities of Varna and Bourgas.

Appearing on the same programme, mathematician Professor Mihail Konstantinov, a veteran of working on several elections in his professional capacity, said that most of the votes that would be sold already have been contracted – about 250 000, or about 10 million leva (about five million euro).

The context of that figure includes the fact that according to official figures, something more than 6.9 million Bulgarian citizens are eligible to elect the 43rd National Assembly on October 5.

How many will turn out, of course, remains to be seen.

In the National Assembly elections in Bulgaria in 2001, voter turnout was 67 per cent; in 2005, 55.8 per cent; in 2009, 66.2 per cent and in 2013, 51.3 per cent. In European Parliament elections, voter turnout in Bulgaria was a mere 28.6 per cent in 2007; 37.5 per cent in 2009 and 36.1 per cent in May 2014.

Presumably, the lower the turnout, the higher the influence of vote-buying – but with no specific statistics, hardly surprisingly, about the rate of vote-buying – it is difficult if not impossible to quantify to what extent it is a factor.

Konstantinov offered the view that the rate of vote-buying in relation to the parties was proportional and, in fact, would not change the final result.

However, he added that there was a new phenomenon – vote-buying by individual candidates of parties to shift themselves upwards through preferential voting.

The effect of the use of preferential voting was seen dramatically in Bulgaria in May 2014. In one case, there was national hilarity when the ticket leader (and, at the time, party leader) of the Bulgarian Socialist was displaced from the number one spot by a relatively unknown candidate. That was attributed by the party to confusion among its voters about preferential voting, an issue that is being addressed through public information campaigns ahead of the October election (others suggested that the development was explained in part by a rank-and-file rebellion against the leader).

In another case, the Reformist Bloc won one seat in the European Parliament, but that seat went not to its ticket leader, Meglena Kouneva, but to another candidate whom the bloc’s voters preferred.

Caretaker Prime Minister Georgi Bliznashki, who has stewardship of the country after the resignation of the highly unpopular May 2013/August 2014 Bulgarian Socialist Party-Movement for Rights and Freedoms cabinet, and whose principal task is guaranteeing the integrity of the October elections, has insisted that there should no serious doubts about the election.

Speaking to reporters on May 15, Bliznashki said that the work of the Civic Board for Free and Transparent Elections had “debunked one of the most persistent myths of the transition” – the presence of “dead souls” on the voters’ rolls.

“Our great desire is to bring order and discipline on the eve of the elections and to prevent a common phenomenon in recent years – vote-buying and selling,” Bliznashki said.

Caretaker Interior Minister Yordan Bakalov has vowed a tough approach against vote-buying and has announced that 1000 people suspected of possible involvement in the trade have been put under special monitoring.

Georgi Arabadzhiev, deputy director of the “criminal police” (its official title) at the Interior Ministry said that the whole range of domestic resources of the ministry was involved in the prevention of vote-buying.

But Professor Mihail Mirchev, a member of the election board, took issue with this, alleging that in Bourgas, two parties already had organised vote-buying.

According to Mirchev, one party was paying 50 leva a person with a promise of a further 50 leva for a satisfactory election result, while the other party was paying 70 leva in advance and all-found.

Vania Stefanova, deputy head of the State Agency for National Security, said that the agency had indications of vote-buying of preferential votes. She added that the information that the agency had in such cases was easily demonstrable and quick results could be expected.

Stefanova said, however, that convictions were a matter for the prosecutors and the courts.

Separately, reports said that the currency in vote-buying in Bulgaria was not always hard cash. Other forms included deliveries of firewood, beer or soft drinks, coupons for bread and flour, and hens.

Some days ago, Interior Minister Bakalov said that vote-buying groups already had been arrested in north-western Bulgaria, adding, “probably there will be more, but I cannot reveal any further information”.

Bakalov said that the institutions had been told “and they are well aware” that did not matter who the politician or the political party was, those engaged in the fight against vote-buying should be “uncompromising”.

“I hope our work will produce results,” Bakalov said.



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.