Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev has vetoed amendments to the Electoral Code that cut back the voting rights of Bulgarians abroad.
Plevneliev is returning the controversial amendments to the National Assembly, with his office saying that this would give MPs the opportunity to create better rules for Bulgarians outside the country to exercise their voting rights.
The announcement of the veto followed protests by Bulgarians abroad, and a petition signed by thousands of citizens asking Plevneliev to impose a veto.
The controversy arose after Parliament approved amendments creating different rules on opening polling stations abroad depending on whether the country involved was in or outside the European Union. Most observers saw the rules, which made it more difficult to open polling stations if a country was outside the EU, as directed against the opposition Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which has a traditional electoral stronghold in non-EU member Turkey.
The various changes to the rules caused protests among Bulgarians in Western countries who said that the amendments were unfair and impractical.
A May 7 2016 statement by the President’s office said that he believed that the Electoral Code should ensure the fairness of elections in Bulgaria and abroad and supported any democratic change in this direction.
However, this should not happen at the expense of unequal treatment of Bulgarian citizens abroad, the statement said.
Any attempt to overcome bad electoral practices should not create national disunity.
Plevneliev said that he was returning to the National Assembly the article on voting abroad because he saw it as creating inequality among Bulgarian citizens in exercising their vote on the grounds of personal status, meaning, depending on their place of residence abroad.
The constitution said that all citizens of Bulgaria were equal before the law and this was an unacceptable restriction of their rights.
He said that the amendments to the rules on opening polling stations at diplomatic or consular offices abroad would inevitably lead to restrictions on citizens exercising the franchise.
Plevneliev found no logic in treating voters differently on the grounds of the factor of whether a city did or did not have a Bulgarian diplomatic or consular mission.
The rule that in non-EU countries, a polling station could be opened only in a city with a population of more than a million where there was no diplomatic or consular representation did not take account the specifics of the Bulgarian communities abroad and did not guarantee equal opportunity for Bulgarians abroad to cast a vote, the statement said.
Plevneliev, in office since January 2012, said that throughout his term of office he had been in active dialogue with Bulgarian communities abroad.
Meetings with Bulgarians abroad were an integral part of his foreign visits, to empathise with their problems and work on solutions.
Plevneliev said that the Bulgarian state owed it to its citizens, wherever they were in the world, to have electoral rules that motivate them to vote, rather than create obstacles to them doing so.
Thanks to the efforts of state institutions and Bulgarian communities, in recent years turnout had been increasing. To go back on this was inexplicable and unacceptable, Plevneliev said. The consequence would be loss of trust among Bulgarian citizens.
He said that he hoped in discussing the law again, members of Parliament would focus their efforts on achieving the best balance between the rights of citizens and the fairness and transparency of elections.
He did not expect that provisions would be adopted that were unconstitutional and that violated the fundamental rights of Bulgarian citizens. If there were any, he would approach the Constitutional Court, Plevneliev said.