Controversy is growing over reports of the roles of Turkish officials in Bulgaria’s March 26 2017 early parliamentary elections, including a cabinet minister and the appearance of Ankara’s ambassador in a political party’s election campaign video.
Turkey’s minister of labour and social security, Mehmet Müezzinoğlu, was reported on March 6 to have endorsed Lyutvi Mestan’s DOST party.
Krassimir Karakachanov’s nationalist VMRO has objected to this, in a statement that also called on the Central Election Commission (CEC) and the Council for Electronic Media to act against a DOST video shown on television featuring ambassador Süleyman Gökçe.
According to a report on March 6 by Bulgarian news agency BTA, Müezzinoğlu called on Bulgarian expatriates to vote massively in the March 26 elections.
A few days earlier, CEC figures showed that by far the largest number of notifications to vote abroad in the elections had come from Bulgarian passport-holders in Turkey.
However, because of amendments to the Electoral Code approved in 2016, the number of polling stations in Turkey is limited to 35. The amendments imposed this upper limit on all non-EU countries, although at the time that nationalist MPs proposed the changes, the move was clearly directed against Bulgarian citizens in Turkey.
DOST is a breakaway party founded and led by Mestan after he was axed from all posts, including his leadership, of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the party founded by Ahmed Dogan and which has an electorate made up largely of Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity.
Mestan was thrown out of the MRF in late 2015 after taking the side of Turkey in its dispute at the time with Russia.
Among Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity, the contest for their vote is mainly between the MRF and DOST, though polls show the MRF is likely to emerge with the larger share while it is not clear that Mestan’s party will win seats in the next National Assembly.
Karakachanov, whose VMRO is taking part in the March elections as part of the United Patriots coalition along with Valeri Simeonov’s National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria and Volen Siderov’s Ataka, said that the appearance in a DOST election clip of the Turkish ambassador was a violation of the Vienna Convention on the role of diplomats and was a “bold provocation” aimed at clearly showing which party Turkey was backing.
The VMRO leader called on public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television to stop showing the video, in which an inscription in Turkish appears, of the name of a foundation. Like other television stations, BNT has a dedicated slot daily showing campaign materials paid for by political parties and coalitions registered to participate in the parliamentary elections.
Under Bulgarian electoral law, campaigning in any language other than the country’s official language – Bulgarian – is illegal.
Responding to the reports of Müezzinoğlu’s statements, Karakachanov said that this was unacceptable interference by Turkey in Bulgaria’s domestic affairs.
Nationalist politicians in Bulgaria customarily are hostile to Ankara, not only for what they allege to be its interventions in Bulgaria’s politics, but also emotionally evoking the centuries during which Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule.
Reports on March 6 said that the weekend, police had confiscated 400 shopping bags containing foodstuffs. The contents of each bag were said to be worth just less than 13 leva and the purchases allegedly were financed by Turkey.
The media reports said that the law enforcement operation, linked to an investigation into alleged vote-buying, took place in Kurdzhali. That region, in southern Bulgaria, has for decades been an MRF stronghold and DOST is keenly contesting it. A report in Bulgarian Socialist Party mouthpiece Duma said that the bags had been marked with DOST’s logo.
Also at the weekend, caretaker Prime Minister Ognyan Gerdzhikov told Bulgarian National Radio that law enforcement had been mobilised against vote-buying.
Gerdzhikov said that reports had been coming in about traders in votes getting underway in the north-western part of Bulgaria.
The party or parties allegedly involved were not identified.
Bulgaria’s electoral law includes provisions campaigning against vote-buying, including that all billboards in election campaigns, other advertising materials, paid publications and campaign video and audio on television and radio must include a statement that “buying and selling votes is a crime”.
(Archive photo: Lyutvi Mestan, left, and Krassimir Karakachanov)