Battle lines drawn in Bulgaria over plan for October referendum on voting system

Political battle lines are being drawn over the plan for Bulgarians to vote in a national referendum on the electoral system simultaneously with mayoral and municipal elections on October 25 2015.

Predictably, the parties of the former ruling axis – the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which blocked a similar plan in the previous parliament – are opposed to varying degrees.

Some of the minority parties currently supporting the government that came into office in November 2014 have reservations too or are seeking amendments to the questions.

Bulgarian head of state President Rossen Plevneliev announced on June 3 that he had tabled the proposal in Parliament for the referendum and the elections on the last Sunday of October, a date that had been widely expected for months.

Plevneliev has proposed three questions: First, do you support majority election for part of the MPs?, second, do you support the introduction of compulsory voting in elections and national referendums?, and third, do you support introduction of remote electronic voting in elections and referendums?

Speaker of Parliament Tsetska Tsacheva, of the centre-right GERB party that holds the majority share in the coalition government, confirmed that the party supported the President’s proposal and the questions in their current form.

Tsacheva said that compulsory voting would not overcome the “corporate vote” – a reference to illicit influencing of voting – but was a necessary interim measure to get everyone to vote. “We cannot close our eyes to the fact that more and more often in recent elections, only a solid nucleus votes,” she said.

Mihail Mikov, leader of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, said that holding a referendum along with the municipal elections would “hinder and complicate” the election process.

He said that on some of the ideas, such as compulsory voting, the BSP was in favour.

But, according to Mikov, if the referendum was successful, the constitution would have to be amended accordingly.

“We will seriously complicate the situation around the local elections,” Mikov said. “There will be a vote for municipal mayor, municipal councillors and mayor of the village, plus three more referendum questions, and then preferential voting is added to all of this…remember the parliamentary elections, preferential voting led to many spoilt ballots.”

Lyutvi Mestan, leader of the MRF, the third-largest party in the National Assembly, said that had Bulgaria had a referendum in 1999 on whether to allow an air corridor for Nato forces (a reference to the alliance’s operation to halt Yugoslav attacks in Kosovo), today Bulgaria “would not have the privilege of being a member of the EU and Nato”.

The principle of “the people speak and we comply” could lead to “not so democratic ideas and exertions”, Mestan said.

According to Mestan, very often the outcome of referendums was the result of “the dominant sentiment in society”.

“Not always are these moods of the day and the emotions of the day in accordance with the strategic goals of the Bulgarian state and the national interest,” Mestan said.

Reformist Bloc MP Martin Dimitrov said that he did not think that holding the elections on a “two in one” basis would complicate voting.

A referendum was democratic instrument that indicated how people viewed issues, and it was good to hold one at the same time as elections because it was a means of increasing turnout, he said.

Dimitrov said that electronic voting would enable the 1.5 million Bulgarian citizens abroad to express their position.

He said that there were mixed feelings about compulsory voting, because of the question of forcing people, but on the other hand, given “the strong mobilisation that the MRF achieves with very questionable means”, mandatory voting would reduce the MRF’s weight in Parliament, Dimitrov said.

The same last-mentioned point was touched on by MRF MP Chetin Kazak, who said that the compulsory voting idea seemed directed at the MRF because of perceptions that it had a “constant” electorate.

Valeri Simeonov, co-leader of the nationalist Patriotic Front – which currently supports the government in Parliament but which has set a deadline for it to meet conditions or face the PF withdrawing that support – said that Bulgaria was “not at a level” to embark on majoritarian voting.

Referring to previous experiences with using a partial majoritarian voting system, Simeonov said that no one could remember the names of those who had been thus elected. “In other words, they were selected by a party.”

“Ask President Plevneliev what part of MPs will be elected by majoritarian vote. I cannot answer for his fantasies,” he said.

Simeonov was also skeptical about electronic voting, saying that with no ballots, “how can one then check who voted how?”

Mariana Todorova, an MP for socialist breakaway ABC, one of the two smallest parties in Parliament and which participates as a minority partner in government, said that the party supported the idea of a referendum but wanted the question about the majoritarian system of electing MPs to be “more precise”.

ABC would propose a question about a mixed voting system, “Do you back the introduction of a mixed voting system in which half of MPs will be elected under a majority rule?”

Most parties did not want a mixed voting system, Todorova told website Focus.

Meanwhile, MPs were on June 4 beginning discussing amendments to the referendum proposed by various political parties and coalitions.

Far-right party Ataka, Parliament’s other smallest party, wanted voters in the referendum to have at least primary education, so that they could understand the issues and would be able to use high-tech methods of voting.

Ataka also wanted the minimum threshold of votes for calling a referendum to be lowered from the current 500 000 to 200 000.

ABC and the Reformist Bloc – the latter the centre-right coalition that is a minority partner in government – wanted the threshold for signatures from citizens required for the calling of a referendum to be lowered to 300 000.

GERB wanted Bulgarians abroad to be able to participate in the referendum.

At first reading in the committee, the GERB proposal on Bulgarians voting abroad was approved by a large majority, but the proposals by Ataka, ABC and the Reformist Bloc were defeated.

Meanwhile, Central Election Commission (CEC) head Ivilina Alexieva told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio on June 4 that the CEC would handle the task of the elections and was already prepared to do so.

Alexieva said that the CEC’s task was to minimise errors and the commission already was thinking about more serious training for local election commissions.

On the issue of Bulgarians abroad voting, she said that there was no law to say in what framework a referendum could be conducted abroad.

“But the CEC already has sufficient experience, so that when there is some clarity, we will hold an awareness campaign,” Alexieva said. The commission would inform Bulgarians abroad through the Foreign Ministry “when we have clarity”.

Referring to the problem highlighted some weeks ago that Bulgarian National Bank printing works would not be able to cope with the task of printing all the ballots for October (where votes are indecisive, mayor and municipal elections will go to second rounds after October 25), she said that discussions on solving the issue were continuing.

Among the options was to buy additional equipment and recruit additional staff. BNB printing works would examine whether other printers in Bulgaria could meet the requirements, and added that the options being discussed was printing ballot papers abroad.



The Sofia Globe staff

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