Bulgaria’s governing coalition backtracks on some controversial election law changes
An April 26 emergency meeting involving Prime Minister Boiko Borissov and representatives of parties in the country’s governing coalition has led to a backtrack on some of the more controversial changes to election law approved by Parliament.
Negotiations and debate on revisions to the Electoral Code were continuing in the National Assembly in the afternoon, with the special sitting expected to be extended.
The meeting involving Borissov and Roumyana Buchvarova, deputy prime minister in charge of coalition policy, went on for more than two hours on Tuesday morning. After the meeting, it emerged that some clauses in the Electoral Code, approved at second reading on April 21 and 22, would be changed.
The fate of Parliament’s decision, taken in response to a proposal by governing coalition minority partner the nationalist Patriotic Front, that polling stations abroad may only be opened at diplomatic missions, remained unclear by mid-afternoon.
The limitation, seen as directed at opposition party the Movement for Rights and Freedoms that customarily gets significant numbers of votes from polling stations in Turkey, already has sparked protests from Bulgarians living in Western countries who see it as an unfair restriction of their practical ability to cast a ballot. Should the rule on polling stations being opened only at embassies and consulates stand, many Bulgarians abroad would have to travel long distances to vote.
It is not yet clear to what extent the differences over voting abroad have been resolved. The Reformist Bloc, a centre-right coalition minority partner, is pushing for the opening of at least an additional 50 polling stations in a country, in places other than embassy or consulate buildings.
The meeting apparently came up with an attempt at an unusual way out of the de-linking of the dates of referendums and national elections.
Previously, the law said that in a year in which an election is scheduled, if a referendum is called, it should be held on the same day as the election – a measure that was intended as a practical cost-saving measure.
But last week Parliament decided to break this link, in a manoeuvre intended against a referendum that is to be held because sufficient signatures were raised in a petition initiated by television talk-show host Slavi Trifonov. De-linking the dates would mean that instead of holding the referendum along with presidential elections in late October or early November, the referendum would be in the summer months of July or August, thus diminishing the chances of turnout being sufficient to make the result legally binding.
Now, the April 26 meeting decided to hand to the President the decision on naming election and referendum dates, the intention apparently being to confer this power through the drafting of regulations arising from the measure already adopted at second reading.
Observers pointed out, however, that this idea may not resolve the issue, as by law the President does not declare the date of presidential elections; that is done by the National Assembly.
In a move apparently in response to concerns raised by minority coalition partner ABC about reducing the official campaign period from 30 days to three weeks, the meeting reportedly agreed to restore the 30-day period.
On another controversial topic, the introduction of compulsory voting in elections, the meeting agreed that the sanction for failing to vote would be imposed only after a voter fails to turn out for two consecutive elections of the same type, presumably meaning, for instance, two presidential, two parliamentary or two municipal elections. The sanction for not voting will be deletion from the voters’ roll.
Another backtrack was the meeting agreed that it would be permissible to form local coalitions, while making clear which parties were linked to the coalition.
As debate got underway in the National Assembly, former Movement for Rights and Freedoms leader Lyutvi Mestan called for the entire rewritten Electoral Code to be rescinded, to “to go to the dump, where it belongs”. This was the only truly elegant way for Parliament to get out of the disgrace, he said.
This brought a sideswipe from MRF MP Chetin Kazak, who said that his party had been opposing the controversial texts while Mestan’s people had not been in the room.