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:

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