Bulgaria’s National Assembly passed at second reading on April 29 a bill of amendments to the country’s Electoral Code, implementing a number of changes to the election process, which would go into effect ahead of the snap parliamentary polls expected in the summer.
The bill was tabled earlier this month by cable television presenter Slavi Trifonov’s ITN party, with several bills by other parties rejected by the National Assembly’s legal affairs committee, and approved at first reading on April 23.
Several provisions in the bill prompted lengthy and heated debates, starting with the amendment that would make it easier to open more voting stations outside the country, as well as removing the limit of no more than 35 voting stations for countries outside the European Union.
The proposal passed by a slim margin, with 117 MPs in favour, eight opposed and 107 abstaining.
The National Assembly also approved a proposal to reduce the Central Election Commission (CEC) from 20 members to 15, changing also the procedures for appointing its members.
Parties represented in the European Parliament but not the National Assembly will lose the right to nominate members of the CEC. The electoral body would be appointed in its entirety by the presidency, following the public consultations and a procedure determined by the head of state.
This prompted criticism from acting Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB, who said that putting that authority in the hands of incumbent President Roumen Radev would raise question flags over the legitimacy of the next elections.
Amid questions about the technical feasibility of the process, MPs voted to allow video surveillance of the ballot-counting process, with the CEC tasked to draft the rules under which such surveillance can be carried out.
The National Assembly also passed the amendment that would require all votes in precincts with more than 300 voters to be cast using voting machines. Under the current law, voters in those precincts can choose to cast either paper ballots or use voting machines.
The amendments allows casting paper ballots “as an exception”, but does not define any conditions when the exception can be invoked. This option was intended as a “back-up” in case machine voting was hampered by technical reasons, ITN parliamentary group leader Toshko Yordanov said.
Despite making voting machines the main means of casting a vote, MPs also decided to require election authorities to print the same amount of paper ballots as at previous elections (the number of voters in a voting precinct plus 10 per cent.)
GERB parliamentary group leader Dessislava Atanassova said that the party would challenge this provision at the Constitutional Court, arguing that it took away voters’ choice on how to exercise their franchise.
The amendment by the predominantly ethnic Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) to allow campaigning in a language other than Bulgarian – which the party routinely tables each time changes to the Electoral Code are discussed – was defeated.
Several other proposals in the bill were voted down – the introduction of postal voting abroad, holding experimental distance voting at the next presidential elections and the creation of a new voting district for Bulgarians abroad.
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