It might be called the “plague on all your houses option”. In future elections, Bulgarian voters will be able to put their cross next to “I don’t support anyone”.
That was one of the provisions voted by Bulgaria’s National Assembly at a late-night sitting on April 26 amid continuing upheaval over controversial changes to the Electoral Code.
Parliament interrupted in recess ahead of the Orthodox Easter for the special sitting, which started at about 11am and lasted until just after midnight, on a day that saw Prime Minister Boiko Borissov involved in early-morning emergency talks to resolve stark differences among ruling coalition parties about various provisions of election laws approved by Parliament last week.
Among the most controversial provisions, within the ruling coalition and among opposition parties, is the introduction of compulsory voting in elections. This appears headed for a Constitutional Court challenge, spearheaded by the opposition Movement for Rights and Freedoms which will seek the requisite number of MPs to petition the court to overturn compulsory voting.
On April 27, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, parliamentary group leader of the National Assembly’s largest party GERB, told local media that compulsory voting would apply only to citizens resident in Bulgaria, not those outside the country.
This was an apparent response to at least one concern about the provision, that some citizens resident outside Bulgaria might have practical difficulties reaching polling stations.
Tsvetanov said that the provision limiting compulsory voting to those living in Bulgaria would be put to the vote on April 28.
At its April 26 sitting, the National Assembly voted that if Bulgarian citizen eligible to vote fails to come to the ballot box in two consecutive elections of the same type – for instance, presidential or parliamentary, that citizen would be sanctioned by being removed from the voters’ roll.
Dealing with an issue perenially raised every time Bulgaria’s Parliament debates election laws, MPs voted to retain the rule that election campaigning may be conducted solely in the Bulgarian language.
For years, this has been an issue for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, whose electorate consists mainly of Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity. In recent elections, a number of MRF figures have been sanctioned for addressing election meetings in Turkish.
A new rule forbids representatives and employees of officially-recognised religious denominations from being involved in electioneering. This has hardly been a common occurence in Bulgaria, although in the municipal elections in 2015, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s controversial Plovdiv Metropolitan Nikolai actively canvassed for a mayoral candidate (who lost).
The National Assembly voted to retain the possibility for the media to charge political parties, coalitions and nomination committees for media coverage, but also agreed – however obviously redundant this may seem – that it is legal for the media to cover an election campaign without charging a fee.
MPs specified that where the media charges for election coverage, the advertising fee may not exceed the average price of an advert in that media in the six months preceding the official start of the election campaign period.
The amended Electoral Code bans negative advertising against a rival party, coalition or initiative committee.
Overturning an earlier controversial proposal, MPs rejected a ban on the release of the results of opinion polls during the campaign period.
The National Assembly voted to retain the rule allowing the publication of opinion poll results, except on the “day of contemplation” – the 24 hours before the start of election day – and before the end of voting on election day.
MPs approved a provision requiring the display in polling booths of instructions about how to cast a ballot, but rejected a proposal from the MRF to require the installation of CCTV cameras in polling stations.
The amended Electoral Code now sets the hours of election day from 7am to 8pm. The Central Election Commission is empowered to extend voting until 9pm.
Overturning a previous provision that had caused tension in the governing coalition, especially on the part of minority coalition partner ABC, MPs agreed that the official campaign period would be 30 days – as it was before – throwing out last week’s provision reducing this to 21 days.
During the marathon sitting, there was an evening protest by a civic group against various controversial provisions of the Electoral Code approved last week. While the gathering was largely peaceful, police arrested a man for throwing objects at MPs emerging from the Parliament building.