Sunday, 17 May 2009

Domestic heavyweights enter election battle

The deadline for registering party lists for the European elections in Bulgaria passed this Friday (May 15th). Some of the major parties waited to the last moment before announcing their candidates, obviously hoping to surprise their opponents. Some surprises did occur, especially regarding the names of the people leading the lists.

With the Bulgarian parliamentary elections coming up in less than two months (to be held on July 5th), Bulgarian parties are eager to prove themselves on the European elections and thus further motivate their electorate for the national vote. That led to the introduction of some "domestic heavyweights" in the electoral battle.

The biggest surprise was the appearance of the Bulgarian foreign minister Ivaylo Kalfin on the No.1 spot in the list of the Socialist Party.

Mr. Kalfin is not even a member of the Socialist party which sparked some internal debate among party officials but since he enjoyed the backing of the current prime minister (and party leader) his candidacy was officially announced on Friday. Ivaylo Kalfin has a background in international economic relations and international banking before becoming an MP in 1994, presidential advisor in 2002 and subsequently - foreign minister in 2005.

Not so surprisingly came another high-profile candidacy - that of the present European commissioner Meglena Kuneva.

Ms. Kuneva's name was mentioned as a possible top-candidate of the list of the Bulgarian liberals for quite some time and the party made it official ahead of the registration deadline. Nicknamed “Ms. Yes” during Bulgaria’s accession negotiations with the EU, she became a Commissioner in 2007 when the country finally joined the union. Commisionner of the Year in 2008. Rumor has it she will not become an MEP even if elected but give way to the next in the party list. Her chances of retaining the commissioner post are rather slim as the party that backs her - NDSV has a quite low electoral support of 2-6% of the people.

The center-right "Blue coalition" is also fielding a prominent figure - the former foreign minister Nadejda Mihaylova.

Ms. Mihaylova was Bulgarian foreign minister between 1997 and 2001. During that period she had to handle the Kosovo conflict and the start of the Bulgarian negotiations for EU accession. Vice-president of the European People's Party between 1999 and 2006. The polls predict the "Blue coalition" could claim one or two of the 17 Bulgarian seats in the EP so she would most probably continue her political carrier as an MEP.

The other parties chose not to field their best soldiers in this battle and keep them for the national vote or simply were not able to find such candidates. The populist GERB (now with 5 MEPs) and the Turkish-minority party DPS ( with 4) chose sitting MEPs to head their lists.

GERB's Rumyana Zheleva has been connected to the post of future European commissioner for quite some time now, although no official statement on the topic has been released by the party. Ms. Zheleva has been in the consultancy sector before becoming an MEP in 2007.

The overall look of the candidates shows that Bulgarian parties take these elections more seriosly than the first time when Bulgaria had to elect its MEPs in 2007. Two years ago the top candidates were mostly young party officials, now we see an acting and former foreign minister, accompanied by a European commissioner. The main reason behind that is most probably the fact that everybody (voters, parties, experts) see the European elections merely as a first round to the national ones. Understandably all actors want to do well. In any case the higher profile of candidates and the increased politicization of society should result in a higher turnout. Due to the two year work of current MEPs Bulgarian society is slightly more informed about what the European Parliament is about. In this sense these elections will be more European and should produce a more legitimate result than the 2007 ones.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Libertas branch in Bulgaria denied EP election registration

Coalition "Libertas-free citizens" have been denied registration for the European Parliament elections by the Bulgarian Central Electoral Commission. The coalition submitted its documents for registration yesterday (May 13th) just minutes before the registration deadline. However, according to Commission officials the set of documents was missing an important piece - a bank order proving the payment of the deposit for participation in the elections. Instead, there was a note saying that the deposit of 100 000 Bulgarian leva (~50 000 EUR) could be paid only by the "oligarchs".

Mr. Ganley's Libertas won't get any MEPs from Bulgaria. Photo:

The issue of the electoral deposit was also raised by the "Greens" in Bulgaria who claimed the raised requirements (from 15 to 50 thousand leva for parties and from 20 to 100 thousand for coalitions) hinders democracy and is aimed at stopping civic formations from breaking the political status-quo. Most European countries do not require deposits for election participation while some apply symbolically low financial thresholds. Still, unlike the Libertas branch, the "Greens" managed to raise enough donations and registered for the elections yesterday. If they manage to get more than 1% of the vote they will get their money back.

The Electoral Commission registered 3 coalitions and 10 political parties which will contest the 17 Bulgarian seats in the next European Parliament.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Vote-rigging: the Bulgarian know-how

"Exitus acta probat" - Roman proverb

Ancient Rome and present-day Bulgarian politics have more in common than most people think. The connection is quite simple and is explained by a simple proverb - "The ends justify the means". In the Bulgarian case that translates into buying and selling of votes much like the old Roman practice.

This phenomenon dates from the first "democratic" elections in the country. Initially, the material stimuli to vote were rather humble and mostly for practical use - such as lids for jars, used by the peasants to store vegetables. The Roma minority was attracted by distribution of beer and meatballs (kebap).

The sign reads: "Bulgaria - that's you". Photo:

This "innocent" practice continued for the first 15 years of the new democratic history of Bulgaria. The 2005 parliamentary elections displayed the first warning signs of buying and selling of votes. The reasons for that should be sought with massive disillusionment with politics and lack of public trust in the political class. That coincided and was partly caused by the introduction of large-scale populism to the Bulgarian political arena. In 2001 former Bulgarian king Simeon (expelled by the communist regime in 1946) came back to the country on the wave of promises for new political morals and European living standard within 800 days. That populist appeal secured him a parliamentary majority but the failure to deliver on his promises led to massive alienation of people from politics.

In 2005, a journalist investigation during the election campaign by one of the leading newspapers "Trud" uncovered a strict scheme for buying of votes. Voters were organized in groups of tens, hundreds and thousands with respective people in charge on each level. The scheme involved people of different ethnic and social background. The common denominator – no interest in politics. No judicial measures were taken as the party involved subsequently entered the governing coalition.

A recent study of the "Open Society Institute" unveils a troubling tendency of people willing to "sell" their vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Over 30% of the respondents in a nationwide representative poll "do not rule out the possibility" of accepting money in return for their vote. If offered money for voting, 63% would refuse it, 5% would accept and vote for the respective party that offered the money, 16% would accept the money but vote on their choice or not vote at all and 16% are undecided on their hypothetical reaction. 43% of the people respond on a question about the minimum price of their vote. The most quoted number is 100 BGN (~50 EUR). As a point of reference – the minimum monthly salary in the country is 260 BGN.

Answers: I'll refuse the money and vote by conscience (45,5%) - green, I'll refuse and abstain (17,8%) - grey, I'll take the money but abstain (4,6%) - orange, I'll take the money but vote by conscience (11,8%) - yellow, I'll take the money and vote for the party that pays (4,1%) - purple, Undecided (16,1%) - white. Graph:

The impact and consequences of this now wide-spread practice are troubling to say the least. Political parties and candidates are not getting elected because of their program or virtue but simply by relying on strict schemes for vote buying. This further alienates the citizens from exercising their constitutional right to vote. The fewer people are motivated to vote by non-material stimuli, the easier it gets for the parties to secure representation and influence just by resorting to the already tested scheme: money -> power -> money.

It’s a vicious circle and it may easily influence the income of the European elections in Bulgaria. Now more than ever the country needs its European membership. The stopped pre-accession funds that Bulgaria was still benefiting from were a clear sign to the Bulgarian society that corruption and lack of rule of law will not be tolerated at European level. Does Bulgaria need an OSCE mission to monitor its elections and keep the country on the European track? The leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (the party of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria, ELDR member) Ahmed Dogan responded on a question about vote buying on the 2007 European elections that "this is a European practice". Is this happening in your home country?

Ahmed Dogan. Photo: