Bulgaria’s 2023 municipal elections: Controversy deepens as machine voting cancelled

A court challenge and public protests are looming in Bulgaria after the Central Election Commission (CEC) decided that machine voting will not be allowed in the country’s October 29 municipal elections and second-round voting on November 5.

Bulgarian electoral law provides that voters should have a choice between voting with a paper ballot or machine voting, but the prospect of voting using a machine was scuppered by the CEC soon after the integrity of the machine voting process was called into question.

The highly controversial decision by the CEC came at the close of a day on which it was alleged, on the basis of a report from the State Agency for National Security (SANS) – not made public – that deputy minister for e-government Mihail Stoinov had purportedly committed an abuse in respect of the codes for the voting machines.

Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov has described the allegations against the voting machine process as an attempt to bring into question that process, and further, to topple his government. The Ministry of e-government held a special news conference on October 27 to show the allegations of a compromise of the machine voting process as baseless, if not impossible.

Denkov’s government was voted into office on June 6 with the backing of We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria and Boiko Borissov’s GERB-UDF, political forces which are rivals in the municipal and mayoral vote and are now at daggers drawn over the machine voting issue.

The machine voting issue has been seized on by other parliamentary groups, including pro-Kremlin party Vuzrazhdane, the predominantly ethnic Turk party the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the Bulgarian Socialist Party and Parliament’s smallest group, the populist ITN. WCC-DB has hit back at GERB and the MRF as seeking to discredit machine voting because they face reverses in the municipal elections.

Bulgarian media reported that the SANS report was signed by the agency’s deputy head, Denyo Denev, perceived as close to the MRF’s Delyan Peevski and GERB-UDF’s Borissov. On October 27, in the wake of the SANS report, Peevski called for either the elimination of machine voting in the local elections, or the postponement of the local vote.

Earlier on October 27, Prime Minister Denkov said: “GERB and MRF have been wanting to remove the machines for a long time, so maybe for them this is a convenient way to make it happen”.

The formal reason for the cancellation of the machine vote by the CEC was that by the time the decision was made to cancel the machine vote, the Ministry of e-government had not yet provided a certificate that the machines met the legal requirements for them.

According to the Electoral Code, it must be submitted “within 20 working days from the date of the provision by the Central Election Commission of the technical devices for machine voting”.

The decision to withdraw machine voting was taken with the votes of a majority of 12 of the 15 members of the CEC. Only the commissioners from the Democratic Bulgaria quota voted against.

None of the CEC members who voted to abolish the machine vote explained why this lack of a certificate from the e-government Ministry, which until now had not been a matter of any significant interest, suddenly became so important. Nor is it why such a step, of cancelling machine voting, is taken without actually having evidence that the devices do not meet the legal requirements.

Very quickly there was a response – first from the Ministry of e-government, who rejected the claim that they did not provide the necessary certificate, and then from WCC-DB, who declared the decision illegal and promised to take it to court.

At a hastily-summoned news conference on Friday night, WCC-DB said that the CEC had been hasty in its decision to scrap machine voting, as the deadline for certifying the machines expires on October 28.

WCC-DB will appeal against the CEC decision in the Supreme Administrative Court.

According to WCC-DB MP Vasil Pandov, the decision to cancel the machine vote is illegal, because the CEC did not wait for the ruling of the Ministry of e-government.

“This is an attack on the conduct of fair and democratic elections,” Pandov said.

“It came extremely unexpectedly and is illegal because the Ministry of e-government, after the CEC issued its decision, found that the machines comply with the requirements of the Electoral Code. The CEC’s decision has as its only reason – that the machines do not conform as there is no e-government ministry decision but the CEC did not wait for the ministry to issue its decision. This gives us reason to appeal the CEC decision in the Supreme Administrative Court, believing that legality will prevail and the constitutional rights of Bulgarian citizens will be respected,” he said.

National Assembly Deputy Speaker Nikola Minchev, of WCC-DB, described what happened on October 27 as a “scandalous series of events”. He said that the institution of the National Assembly, contrary to its powers, interfered in the election campaign. Minchev was referring to a hastily-summoned meeting of Parliament’s presiding officers and parliamentary group leaders in response to the SANS report. WCC-DB’s Hristo Ivanov called into question the convening of a meeting of Parliament’s presiding officers on a matter regarding local elections, in respect of which the body has no role.

WCC-DB co-leader Kiril Petkov said that the country and the electoral process could not become a victim to the “revenge command” that started with what he called a “fabricated report” by SANS.

“I want to appeal to the people of the CEC: If you felt pressure from someone, if someone pressured you, you still have time to show that you are an institution that can make the correct decisions for Bulgarian citizens,” Petkov said.

“And the other thing I want to say: SANS is a tool of the ‘deep state’. For 30 years, Bulgaria has not been able to get out of this backstage cycle. It is time for all of us, all Bulgarians, to say – ‘Enough!’, he said.

Immediately after the CEC decision, a protest was called on Facebook for noon on October 28 in front of the CEC headquarters.

“Let’s protect our votes!! The machines are the surest way to count our vote correctly! The CEC is controlled to such an extent by GERB and MRF that they trample on the laws,” according to the organisers of the protest.

It will be held under the motto “No to the paper ballot, yes to the machine vote”.

The hashtag is #ДАНСwithме23 – a reference to the mass protests of 2013, when Peevski – a controversial figure, latterly subject to US Magnitsky Act sanctions – was elected by Parliament as head of SANS, and also to the fact that the current controversy came about after a report by SANS.

The protesters will gather in front of the National Assembly building, in the former “Party House”, where the CEC is housed.

In a late-night development, the municipal election commission in Sofia rejected the CEC’s decision and voted to allow machine voting. This happened at a midnight meeting in the capital.

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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.