Bulgaria’s 2016 elections: Constitutional Court challenge over polling stations abroad

Bulgaria’s Ombudsman Maya Manolova will lodge a challenge in the Constitutional Court on October 17 to the Electoral Code provision limiting the maximum number of polling stations that may be opened in a foreign country to 35.

Manolova said this in an interview with public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio on October 17, a day after the Central Election Commission (CEC) announced its decision on polling stations abroad for the November 2016 presidential elections.

In line with the limitation set in the Electoral Code, the CEC said that there would be 35 polling stations each in the United Kingdom, the United States and Turkey.

The issue of the number of polling station abroad has outraged Bulgarian expatriates for months, throughout the 2016 latest rewrite of electoral law. The new limitation on the number of polling stations abroad was pushed by a nationalist coalition, the Patriotic Front, in a move clearly directed against voting in Turkey, stronghold of the PF’s bete noire the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.

Manolova told BNR that she would insist that the Constitutional Court rules urgently on the relevant clauses of the Electoral Code that limit the ability of Bulgarians abroad to vote.

Manolova, formerly a Bulgarian Socialist Party MP who piloted an earlier version of the Electoral Code – that itself was dogged by controversy – and also a failed candidate to be the BSP nominee for president in the 2016 elections, alleged that the CEC was still trying to hinder than help ease the elections.

She said that the controversial text should eliminated either by a “courageous decision” by the CEC, legislative amendments or a complaint to the Constitutional Court.

“The situation is explosive. There is a tangible problem with the exercising of voting rights of our compatriots abroad,” Manolova said.

CEC spokesperson Tsvetozar Tomov said that the controversial clauses of the Electoral Code limiting polling stations abroad had put the CEC between a rock and a hard place.

He said that there had been a debate in the CEC on the text, which could be considered contrary to the spirit of the law, other provisions of the Electoral Code and the constitution. On the other land, the CEC was obliged to respect the law as it is.

Meanwhile, in another drama over the Electoral Code, there are indications that Bulgaria’s MPs may revoke the provision for a “I don’t support anyone” option on the presidential elections ballot paper.

And if they do not, that may face a Constitutional Court challenge too – from head of state President Rossen Plevneliev.

In these elections, for the first time, Bulgarians are compelled by law to go to vote. In what was apparently intended as a softening of the situation, the Electoral Code provides for the choice of a “I don’t support anyone” box on the ballot paper – in the case of the 2016 presidential elections, accompanying the names of the 21 candidates.

However, controversy has erupted over the methodology to be used. The “I don’t support anyone” votes will be counted towards the calculation of voter turnout, but will not be counted in actual voting results. This and other complications regarding the new option are seen by specialist lawyers as in contradiction to Bulgaria’s constitution.

In recent days, matters have become heated, including with Prime Minister Boiko Borissov claiming that the inclusion of the controversial option was not the work of his GERB party – even though the record appears to show that it was.

Parliament is expected to return next week for two special sittings, with the Electoral Code and last-minute amendments to it said to be on the agenda.

In a television interview on October 17, Plevneliev said that if lawmakers did not take responsibility for sorting out the Electoral Code, he was ready to approach the Constitutional Court.

He called on MPs to change the method by which the results of the presidential election would be counted, taking into account the “I don’t support anyone” box.

“There is a problem, that’s obvious,” Plevneliev said. “The same vote is legitimate and valid when putting a cross next to ‘I don’t support anyone’ and that same vote becomes illegitimate when counting the support for individual candidates.”

“This problem should be solved in the National Assembly as soon as possible. If MPs do not take a responsible decision to solve the problem, as head of state I’m ready to act within my powers – to approach the Constitutional Court,” he said.

Plevneliev said that it bothered him that “always at the last moment before elections, they make corrections to electoral law. I appeal to MPs to act so that that is not repeated”.

He welcomed the initiative by Prime Minister Boiko Borissov for Parliament to meet on October 18 to discuss the Electoral Code.

The past week closed with melodrama following a vote on October 12 for Parliament to go into recess until the presidential election on November 6.

The opposition BSP succeeded in petitioning for a special sitting on October 14, but this was sunk by a boycott by MPs including those from Borissov’s party. Borissov made an unscheduled visit to Parliament and was involved in a confrontation with his government’s coalition partners, and insisted publicly that MPs should get back to the plenary to resolve urgent issues. Borissov also displayed annoyance at his party being blamed for the Electoral Code farce.





Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.