The eve of the Orthodox Easter long weekend found Bulgaria’s MPs still in their benches in the National Assembly – unless they were in one of a series of unscheduled adjournments – arguing the toss in the latest day of controversy over amendments to the country’s election laws.
The arguments on April 28 involved not only the substance of the amendments but also a row about a report submitted in the name of the legal affairs committee – which irked opposition MPs who said that there could be no such report from the committee because it had not met.
Among the issues to be resolved on the final day before the scheduled Easter recess involved voting abroad. An earlier version of the amendments, restricting the opening of polling stations to Bulgaria’s embassies and consulates, has caused discontent not only among several political parties but also among Bulgarians living outside the country.
Speaker Tsetska Tsacheva twice suspended business on the morning of April 28, the first time over procedural issues, and the second when a shouting match erupted over the report from the legal affairs committee.
Tsacheva called a meeting of the chairpersons’ council, representing deputy presiding officers from all parliamentary groups, to resolve the tensions in the House.
The second adjournment had followed soon after Danail Kirilov, an MP for Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB party and head of the National Assembly’s legal affairs committee, went to the speaker’s podium to make a personal statement about the controversy about the committee report.
He was unable to address the House as opposition MPs drowned him out with catcalls and chants demanding his resignation.
Yanaki Stoilov, an MP for the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, had earlier tabled a formal demand for Kirilov’s resignation as chairperson of the legal affairs committee. Stoilov described the committee report as “counterfeit”.
The report had been signed by six members of the committee, but Hamid Hamid, an MP for the opposition Movement for Rights and Freedoms, queried the report on the grounds that he was not aware that the committee had met.
Hamid said that he had asked several other MPs earlier in the day about whether the legal affairs committee was meeting, and if so where.
Emil Dimitrov, for the nationalist Patriotic Front, which supports the government in Parliament, said that the meeting had been held in the office of Deputy Speaker Dimitar Glavchev, adding that he had checked the report “and everything was fine”.
“Perhaps you were not active enough or were not interested,” Dimitrov told opposition MPs.
During the second adjournment, the legal affairs committee met, arguing about the revised proposal on voting abroad, which at that stage was to allow the opening of polling stations – with no limit on the number – in other European Union countries and in other countries’ cities provided that the city’s population was more than a million.
Controversy also was continuing over a proposal to leave it up to the President to decide whether a referendum and an election may be held on the same day.
Previously, Bulgarian election law said that in any year in which an election is scheduled, if a referendum is called, the referendum should be held on the same day as the election. But during its April 21-22 sitting, Parliament broke this link.
The de-linking of the holding of elections and referendums was a counter-move against a referendum to be held after a television talk show host, Slavi Trifonov, succeeded in raising the number of signatures required to petition for the holding of a referendum. Bulgaria goes to the polls in autumn to elect a president, and under the previous law, the referendum might have been held then. Pending further changes, the referendum could be called at the height of summer, thus scuppering its results through low turnout.
Meanwhile, on April 27, an all-day sitting produced various other amendments to the Electoral Code.
One requires mayors and district governors to check the validity of address registrations made in the past year, six months before a municipal election is held. The check should be completed no less than three months before the election.
This measure is seen as a counter-move to past practice of political parties shifting voter address registrations to municipalities for strategic electoral reasons.
MPs also voted to introduce experimental voting. The measure envisages experimental electronic voting in 20 polling station, chosen by the Central Election Commission by casting lots.
The opportunity to voting online will be announced to voters eligible to do so, who then will have to register on a dedicated website. Every voter who votes online will be eligible to cast a ballot on paper, given that the experimental nature of the online vote means that the results from it will not be taken into account.
Voters who choose to vote online will receive a password either by registered post or at the office of the municipality where the voter has a permanent residential address.
Those who vote online will be able to change their vote two or three times before confirming a final decision.
A special body will be set up to take charge of the administration of online voting. Three simulations of electronic voting must be held before January 1 2018.
The amendments approved on April 27 also increase the penalty for political parties that fail to provide a public register of donations received and money spent on their election campaigns. The fine increases from the current 1000 to 5000 leva (about 500 to 2500 euro) to 3000 to 10 000 leva.