Bulgaria’s Parliament approved on February 14 the second reading of amendments to the Electoral Code that raised the thresholds for preferential voting, but also envisage a gradual introduction of machine voting at Bulgaria’s two major elections in 2019.
The bill was passed shortly before midnight after a marathon 14-hour sitting of the National Assembly, which was delayed after the first attempt to secure the necessary quorum in the morning failed.
After the quorum was secured, proceedings were further confused by the fact that MPs had to consider two reports from the legal affairs committee with its recommendations on the amendments tabled between readings – one from the committee’s 10-hour sitting on February 13 and another from a second sitting on February 14.
Among the most fiercely-debated amendments were the provisions tabled by minority party the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which envision raising the threshold on preferential voting – introduced before the 2014 European Parliament elections, this has produced major shifts in party lists at previous elections.
The amendments by the MRF, which has long opposed preferential voting, stated that preferential votes would only apply if the candidate in question receives as many preferential votes as the number required to win an MP seat in their particular electoral district (or the nation-wide minimum required to win an MEP seat in European Parliament elections.) The threshold is seen as virtually impossible to attain.
The provisions were opposed by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, but also the nationalist VMRO – one of the three parties in the United Patriots group that is the junior partner in the government coalition – which called on President Roumen Radev to veto the bill.
Earlier in the day, Radev criticised the bill, saying that a number of provisions were damaging to “the transparency of the electoral process” while he accused the government coalition of attempting to “win by default through amendments to the Electoral Code.”
Another provision approved by MPs required that machine voting – as opposed to paper ballots – be used in at least 3000 out of about 12 400 voting precincts at the European Parliament elections in May.
For the municipal elections in autumn 2019, 6000 voting precincts would be required to use voting machines, and a full switch to machine voting would be made at the next national elections. Currently, Bulgaria is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in spring 2021, but the last Bulgarian legislature to sit a full term was the 40th National Assembly that ended its term in June 2009.
As regards electronic voting, which Parliament legislated in 2016, the amendments required the Central Electoral Commission to draft a road map for its introduction by March 31 2020.