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Bulgaria Holds Early Parliamentary Elections; OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission
Tuesday, May 28, 2013

By Helsinki Commission Staff

Country-Wide Street Protests Trigger Snap Elections

In early 2013, 30 Bulgarian cities were rocked by demonstrations. In some instances, violence erupted between demonstrators and police. In addition, in the months immediately preceding the elections, six people committed suicide by self-immolation in acts of public protest and desperation.

The street demonstrations were triggered by sharply rising electricity rates in a country widely described as the poorest of the EU’s 27 members. Discontent was further fueled by dissatisfaction with political leaders across the board and widespread corruption.

In February, following the street demonstrations, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned, paving the way for May 12’s early parliamentary elections.

For those elections, 8,100 candidates stood for seats in the 240-member unicameral National Assembly allocated by proportional representation from 31 multi-mandate constituencies (with a 4% threshold for both parties and coalitions to enter parliament). Altogether, 63 parties (38 outside of coalitions and 7 coalitions) were registered as well as two independent candidates.

The resulting ballot was roughly a yard long.

OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission

The OSCE mounted a full scale Election Observation Mission (EOM) – the first in Bulgaria since 1997 and the first ever in an EU country.

Eoghan Murphy (MP, Ireland) was appointed by OSCE Chair-in-Office Leonid Kozhara to serve as Special Coordinator and leader of the short-term observer mission (parliamentarians and observers seconded by OSCE participating States). The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) long-term observer team was headed by Miklos Haraszti. Roberto Battelli (MP, Slovenia) headed the OSCE PA delegation. Andreas Gross (MP, Switzerland) headed the observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

On Election Day, there were 158 observers deployed from 39 countries.

Of an estimated 6.9 million voters (a number that, in any case, the OSCE and Council of Europe Venice Commission suggest may be high), 3,541,745 went to the polls. Voter turnout was at about 50 percent – the lowest turnout since the fall of communism – reflecting the voters’ antipathy even more than apathy.

Approximately 850,000 votes were cast for parties that failed to overcome the 4% threshold to get into parliament.

Reportedly 107,799 Bulgarian citizens voted abroad, with 63,152 votes cast in Turkey.

The Mysterious Case of the Extra Ballots

The administration of the elections on E-Day was largely unremarkable. It was, however, preceded by two separate but related wiretapping scandals suggesting that the Ministry of Interior had bugged journalists and state officials. The day before the elections, an “extra” 350,000 ballots were discovered in a printing house in Sofia. (A week after the elections, it was reported that more than 2,000 extra stamps for electoral commissions had also surfaced.)

In its preliminary findings, the Election Observation Mission drew particular attention to the alienation of voters, lack of confidence in the electoral process, concerns over ballot security (the “extra” ballots), and persistent allegations of vote buying or voter intimidation. (A final report from the Mission is forthcoming.)

Roma and Other Minorities in the Electoral Context

Bulgaria has a population of 7.36 million (from almost 8 million in the 2001 census and roughly 8.4 million in the 1992 census). This continuing drop reflects declining birth rates and labor migration to other parts of Europe.

The ethnic Turkish minority comprises 8.8 percent of the population. Almost 5 percent of the population self-identified as Romani on the last census, but Roma are estimated to be roughly 10 percent of the population. Last year, the Bulgarian Government estimated that 23 percent of the working age population is Romani.

The Bulgarian Constitution prohibits the formation of political parties on ethnic, racial or religious lines, which is contrary to OSCE and other international norms on freedom of assembly. The OSCE has criticized this restriction in previous reports on Bulgarian elections.

The Electoral Code stipulates that the election campaign must be conducted in the Bulgarian language only, also contrary to standards on free speech and minority language use set out in the 1990 Copenhagen Document. These restrictions also impede get-out-the-vote efforts.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms is, de facto, an ethnic Turkish minority party, although it has largely been allowed to function with a wink and a nod from the authorities. After the elections, it was reported that Lyutvi Mestan, head of the MRF party, was fined in Sliven for campaigning in Turkish.

Bulgaria's last two local and Presidential elections (which were held simultaneously in 2007 and 2011) were preceded by outbreaks of anti-Roma violence. In 2011, just a few weeks before the elections, 14 Bulgarian cities erupted into anti-Roma riots. In July 2012, the headquarters of the EuroRoma political party were firebombed, killing one man. The investigation has not produced any results.

On April 8, 15 Romani civil society organizations withdrew from their advisory role with the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues, effectively deeming the government’s work in this area and the consultative process to be a sham.

There were no Roma in electable positions on the lists for any of the leading parties. As a result, the National Assembly produced by the May 12 elections will be the first Bulgarian parliament since the fall of communism to have no Romani MPs.

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    The Helsinki Commission hosted a conversation with Swedish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Soraya Post, one of only two Roma in the EU’s 751-member legislative body, and Dr. Ethel Brooks of Rutgers University, a U.S. Romani scholar and Member of the Board of the European Roma Rights Center and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Council.  The briefing focused on Roma, the largest ethnic minority in the European Union, with an estimated population of 12 to 15 million. However, Roma are severely underrepresented in parliaments and other leadership roles across Europe, and face some of the highest level of discrimination on the continent.  MEP Post was introduced by Dr. Brooks. Together, MEP Post and Dr. Brooks outlined the incredible challenges Roma face in the form of social exclusion, political under-representation, and economic inequality.  Dr. Brooks stated that the experience of Roma included “racism, forced evictions, racially motivated attacks, police abuse, segregation, inhuman and degrading treatment, housing discrimination, expulsions and marginalization, educational segregation and the denial of access to schools, of unfair detention, hate speech, and hate crimes among other forms of violence [and the need to combat] structural forms of anti-Romani racism at all levels.”  MEP Post spoke specifically to the challenges she faces in the European Parliament as she works to ensure Romani interests and rights are defended, and highlighted the need for more concerted efforts to undermine anti-Roma discrimination at the national level.  MEP Post has spearheaded efforts in the European Union to address the situation of Roma, including drafting a recent report on improving the situation of Roma being discussed in the European Parliament.  Two weeks ago MEP Post introduced a resolution in the European Parliament on fundamental rights aspects of Roma integration in the EU, which was adopted by an overwhelming majority in the European Parliament.  The report and resolution are historic in that they call for efforts to addresses the structural, far-reaching aspects, practices, and manifestations of anti-Roma discrimination. Recommendations from the legislative efforts include setting up truth and reconciliation commissions at both the national and EU levels in member states and in the EU, documenting findings in an official white paper, and making the history of Roma part of the curricula in schools.  Other recommendations include ensuring that EU employment and education programs  reach Roma; clearly condemning and sanctioning anti-Roma hate speech in EU Member States and national parliaments; compensating Roma women subjected to forced sterilization; investigating and preventing unlawful removals of Roma children from their parents; and implementing measures to ensure equal treatment of Roma in the fields of education, employment, health and housing, as well as an improved EU framework for national Roma integration strategies after 2020.   The impetus for including a truth commission in the EU legislation came from a Swedish effort MEP Soraya Post led that resulted in a Swedish apology to Roma and a government white paper detailing anti-Roma abuses throughout Swedish history, ranging from laws banning Roma to enter the country from 1914-1954 to forced sterilization. The briefing ended with statements from the panelists on the importance of supporting efforts that unite societies, and noted recent OSCE efforts to increase Roma political participation as part of the solution. The Helsinki Commission has had a long track record of engagement on issues relating to the human rights of Roma including addressing mob violence against Roma; ending sterilization without informed consent of Romani women; addressing the denial of citizenship and the loss of identity documents for Roma, particularly in the context of the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia; encouraging remembrance of and teaching about the genocide of Roma; and countering prejudice and discrimination against Roma in the context of our larger efforts to address racism and anti-Semitism. 

  • Belarus: 25 Years after Signing the Helsinki Final Act

    In July 2017, Belarus hosted the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Annual Session.  However, two decades ago, the OSCE PA refused to even recognize the legitimacy of Belarus’ putative elected representatives.  What has changed? Download the full report to learn more.

  • OSCE Parliamentary Delegation to Rabat Examines Morocco’s Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism

    From October 19 to October 20, 2017,  Helsinki Commission staff participated in a visit to Rabat, Morocco organized by Morocco’s upper house of Parliament—the House of Counselors—and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) to discuss the so-called “Moroccan Approach” to countering violent extremism. In a series of meetings with legislative and government leaders and a special seminar hosted by the House of Councilors, the OSCE PA delegation learned about the role that Morocco’s constitutional monarchy, religious institutions, democratic reforms, and comprehensive migration strategy play in combatting the attraction and recruitment of youth by terrorist organizations. The delegation was led by OSCE PA Vice President Marietta Tidei (Italy) and featured the participation of MP Stephane Crusniere (Belgium), Vice-Chair of the OSCE PA Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, and Senator Pascal Allizard (France), OSCE PA Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs, among others. Parliamentarians and staffers from the legislatures of the participating States of the OSCE exchanged views with the President of the House of Counselors Hakim Benchamach, President of the House of Representatives Lahbib El-Malki, Minister Delegate to the Minister of Interior Nouredine Boutaib, Catholic Archbishop of Rabat Msgr. Vincent Landel, and Director of the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams Abdessalam Lazaar. These meetings and the attendant seminar underscored the centrality of Morocco’s constitutional monarchy to ordering religious belief and practice in the country. Morocco’s monarch, Muhammad VI, is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and possesses the title “Commander of the Faithful.” This title confers on him preeminent religious authority in the country and the responsibility to preside over the issuance of all religiously binding judgments, or fatwas. In his lecture during the conference, Professor Ahmed Abbadi, secretary general of the leading organization for Muslim scholars in Morocco, highlighted the Moroccan King’s religious authority as an antidote to the “cacophony of fatwas” he said afflicted much of the Islamic world beginning in the 20th century. Professor Abbadi described how the advent of cable television, the internet, and social media facilitated the proliferation of these religious judgments from religious scholars of all ideological persuasions and levels of education. Additionally, several authorities attributed Morocco’s success in countering violent extremism to the work of a network of ministries, religious organizations, and institutes that propagate the moderate interpretation of Islam championed by the King. Mr. Boutaib, Minister Delegate to the Minister of Interior, was among several officials who highlighted the focus in Moroccan religious institutions on promoting maqasid in scriptural explication, an approach that emphasizes the spiritual, moral, ethical, and social goals of religious belief and practice above literalist interpretation and formalistic piety. The delegation visited the Muhammad VI Institute for the Training of Imams where hundreds of imams and male and female religious guides—murshidin and murshidat—from across Morocco and Western and sub-Saharan Africa are brought on full-scholarship to deepen their understanding of this interpretation of the Islamic faith. Moroccan interlocutors also praised the King’s initiative to undertake significant democratic reforms during the Arab Spring as key to promoting social development and countering the attractiveness of extremist ideologies. “While other countries delayed reforms because of security concerns, Morocco persevered,” said House of Counselors President Benchamach. Among the most significant constitutional changes approved by referendum in 2011, the King is now required to name a prime minister from the largest party in parliament and the prime minister enjoys greater authority in running the government. The president of the lower house, Lahbib El-Malki told the OSCE PA delegation, “No security is possible without democracy and no cooperation is possible without security,” emphasizing the centrality of democracy to achieving these other strategic aims. As part of its effort to mitigate risk factors for radicalization, Morocco has focused on economic development domestically and in surrounding countries. These development efforts feature as part of the country’s self-described “comprehensive migration strategy” that directs development assistance to countries of origin, provides services and ensures the rights of migrants who take up residence in Morocco, and works to prevent irregular onward migration. Minister Delegate Boutaib and others touted Morocco’s “regularization” campaign in 2014 that allowed approximately 25,000 migrants to become legal residence of Morocco and to access services, education, housing, and the labor market. A second wave of this campaign began earlier this year and is ongoing. Despite overall confidence in the strength and sustainability of this multi-faceted approach to countering violent extremism, Moroccan officials expressed concern about continued challenges. In particular, several interlocutors described the danger posed by ungoverned expanses in the Sahel made worse by the ongoing conflict in Libya. They further cautioned that the territorial rout of ISIS in Syria and Iraq would likely only usher in new and more complex manifestations of the global jihadist threat. House of Representatives President El-Malki also warned of broader cultural and social trends that must be addressed in order to mitigate the attractiveness of extremist ideologies. He observed that modernity had succeeded in achieving great economic and technological advancements but left a more complicated legacy on the cultural and social level. El-Malki cited contemporary crises of identity and meaning that are playing out in many societies. Specifically, he counseled that the world cannot adopt a single culture; instead, he contended that “a plurality of cultures is a factor in stability.”  By hosting the OSCE PA delegation, the Kingdom of Morocco took an important step in advancing communication between the participating States of the OSCE and the six North African and Middle Eastern countries that comprise the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation. While there are several opportunities every year for intergovernmental and inter-parliamentary exchanges with the Mediterranean Partners, this event provided a unique opportunity to examine at length the best practices and experience of one of the Partner States. In addition, the inter-parliamentary nature of the exchange suggests a promising avenue for further engagement. While many initiatives relating to the Mediterranean Partners have been stalled by a lack of consensus among OSCE participating States, the OSCE PA is not subject to the same consensus rule, placing it in a promising position to deepen communication and cooperation across the Mediterranean in the years to come.

  • Situation of Roma in Europe to Be Reviewed at Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “THE SITUATION OF ROMA: MEP SORAYA POST DISCUSSES EUROPE’S LARGEST ETHNIC MINORITY” Tuesday, November 7, 2017 10:00 am to 11:00 am Senate Visitors Center Room 215 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Roma are the largest ethnic minority in the European Union, with an estimated population of 12 to 15 million. The Helsinki Commission will host a conversation with Swedish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Soraya Post, one of only two Roma in the EU’s 751-member legislative body. MEP Post will be introduced by Dr. Ethel Brooks, Chair of the Board of Directors of the European Roma Rights Center. MEP Post has spearheaded efforts in the European Union to address the situation of Roma.  She has drafted a report on improving the situation of Roma that will be discussed in the European Parliament in late 2017. The OSCE was the first international organization to explicitly recognize the human rights situation of Roma. 

  • The Western Balkans: Perspectives from OSCE Field Missions

    Since the outbreak of the conflicts associated with Yugoslavia’s break-up in the early 1990s, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its field missions have been a central part of the international community’s response. Early OSCE efforts to counter the spillover effects of those conflicts were followed by ongoing assistance in post-conflict recovery and reconciliation. Today, OSCE field missions continue to exist in virtually every country of the region. They encourage the reform and cooperation essential to the long-term stability of the region through activities that broadly support democratic institutions and governance, particularly to strengthen rule of law; programs to promote integration of minority communities, especially Roma, and to counter violent extremism, and more; and regular reporting to the OSCE Secretariat and participating States. On November 1, 2017 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) held a public briefing on OSCE field missions in the Western Balkans. Jeff Goldstein, the current Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission to Skopje, began by noting positive developments in Macedonia, including increased political participation in recent elections, and efforts by some parties to reach across ethnic lines. The increase in voter turnout, he said, “speaks to the fact that the citizens of the country both cared about politics and had faith that the democratic process could actually bring positive change to their lives.” He also highlighted the OSCE’s efforts to encourage the peaceful resolution of last winter’s political crisis, and discussed the Mission’s current focus on reforms in areas including the rule of law, freedom of the media, increasing the role of parliament, and further implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement. Ambassador Jonathan Moore, former Head of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, described the Mission’s in engagement with issues of education, rule of law, and countering violent extremism at a local level, and its policy of maintaining “credibility with everyone, presence everywhere, access to everyone, engagement with everyone.” To illustrate the success of the Mission’s local engagement, he discussed its work with a grassroots student movement to oppose the reintroduction of ethnically segregated schools in the town of Jajce. Amb. Moore was clear that the role of the Mission is to assist such organic developments and that, “the ultimate credit goes, of course, to the students themselves, who showed incredible tolerance, maturity, and commitment to a common future.” Michael Uyehara, former Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission to Serbia, highlighted the Mission’s “Follow Us” initiative, a program that brings together young women and female parliamentarians from Belgrade and Pristina in dialogue about their common issues. The initiative also commissioned a documentary about their conversation, which has been screened several times for audiences in Serbia and Kosovo. He also remarked on the enthusiasm of the local staff, who “believe in the OSCE Mission’s work and are deeply committed to the Mission’s objective of helping Serbia to advance politically and to overcome the legacy of the past.” Ambassador Marcel Peško, the current Director of the Conflict Prevention Centre in the OSCE Secretariat, discussed the OSCE’s capacity building efforts in the Balkans. Noting the difficult geopolitical environment in which OSCE activity takes place, he stressed the need to work with host governments to assist their reform agendas, and “to strengthen the resilience of government structures and the civil society to be able to address and cope with the challenges that are there in front of them.”

  • Parliamentarians and Commissioners Discuss Europe’s Changing Landscape and BREXIT

    By Mischa Thompson, Policy Advisor As part of a week of activities, top European legislators participated in a Capitol Hill event hosted by Helsinki Commissioners Representatives Gwen Moore (WI-04), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) on the potentially far-reaching impact of BREXIT and several European elections for the 57 North American and European countries that make up the region of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).   Member of the European Parliament and former Italian Integeration Minister Cecile Kyenge launched the event with the assertion that the United Kingdom’s June 23, 2016 decision to leave the European Union (EU)—often described as BREXIT—“shook the European Project to its core with the unprecedented case of [a] Member State parting from the EU.”  Beyond BREXIT testing the EU, she also said it was a test for EU values.  Reminding the audience that “the motto of the EU is ‘United in Diversity’ [and] its significance in Europeans coming together for peace and prosperity [across cultures],” she also noted how BREXIT had divided communities throughout the EU. Building on these remarks, Commissioner Representative Sheila Jackson Lee highlighted the global leadership role the UK has played in human rights and asked the European delegation how BREXIT might impact this role going forward. UK Parliamentarian David Lammy noted that the BREXIT vote was an extraordinary break from the past.  “The British put politics before the economy [to] end the free movement of people across Europe,” he stated.  “BREXIT will lead to economic decline in the short to medium term [and] will not lead to an end to immigration […] because when Britain goes to negotiate free trade agreements with [for example]  India, the first thing they will say is they want visas for their people to come to the UK […]  We will be trading immigration from Eastern Europe from other parts of the […] Commonwealth.”  He also acknowledged that while a “UK-US FTA (free trade agreement) is being discussed,” an agreement could have negative implications for the British on issues from the “National Health Service [to] genetically modified foods and crops.” Observing that BREXIT was part of a long-standing conversation on immigration, refugees, and the economy of the European Union, Swedish Parliamentarian Momodou Jallow said, “Europe has an aging population and that means we need as many people as possible with the competencies we need to sustain the living conditions we created.”  Critical to sustaining European economies and standards of living, he highlighted the importance of “creat[ing] conditions for people to come work [under] the same labor conditions as Swedes and the need for social investments so all can work, pay taxes, [and] for a better society.”   “Policymakers have to do better to explain there is no conflict to have everyone work and maintain the living conditions we have created,” he stated.  He also raised the EU’s history of defending human rights and challenges to that image during the current refugee crisis. Noting that Britain has a need for trained adult workers “to scale up its workforce” in addition to a huge regional problem with wealth and power being centralized in London and resources not being adequately distributed throughout the country, Lammy said, “We should blame successive domestic governments for this failure in those communities.  The EU was giving us little bits of substantive money to actually make things easier for people [in other regions].  Unfortunately, we could see the breakup of the UK,” he lamented. Despite the uncertainty presented by BREXIT, Commissioners Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee and Gwen Moore vowed to continue transatlantic cooperation.  Closing remarks by Representative Moore reminded participants of the role in global security and leadership the UK has played including in human rights and the continuing importance of U.S. civil rights leaders working with civil society across the Atlantic.  “We are concerned and wondering about the global implications BREXIT has for human rights,” she said.   In the spirit of accountability and transparency “It is important for us to remain citizens and partners,” she said. In addition to meetings with representatives of the U.S. government, private sector, and civil society, the European delegation also spoke at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference. For more information on the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference, download the full report.

  • Countering Radicalization

    On October 26, 2017 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) hosted a briefing entitled Countering Radicalization; International Best Practices and the Role of the OSCE. The panel featured the Washington presentation of a groundbreaking OSCE report by Professor Peter Neumann, Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office on Countering Radicalisation and Violent Extremism.  At the briefing, Neumann provided an overview of the findings and recommendations made in his report, titled “Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalisation that Leads to Terrorism: Ideas, Recommendation, and Good Practices from the OSCE Region.” Neumann offered two main recommendations: first, he proposed bolstering the OSCE’s role as a hub for best practices in counter-radicalization, and in particular the role of the Action Against Terrorism Unit in this area. Second, he called for a strengthening of the OSCE field operations, whose on-the-ground presence and continuity made them especially effective actors, in particular in the critical regions of the Balkans and Central Asia. He underlined that while the OSCE will never be the sole actor in counter-terrorism efforts, despite the different approaches of its participating States, it can make a valuable contribution as one of many tools towards addressing the problem of radicalization. Two leading practitioners and analysts of U.S. counter-radicalization efforts also offered their views on Neumann’s report.  First, Seamus Hughes, Deputy Director of Program on Extremism at George Washington University, commended the report’s methodology.  Hughes offered a number of points for consideration, including that in Europe, the great majority of attacks are committed by citizens, rather than migrants; that “securitizing” relationships with minority communities was counterproductive; and that countering violent extremism programs were broadly underfunded. Matthew Levitt, Director of the Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, called for a public-health model for treating the radicalization challenge at a community level, further suggesting that the Trump administration may well be moving away from such an approach and towards a rubric of “terrorism prevention,” which runs the risk of putting the problem entirely in the hands of the law enforcement and intelligence communities and neglecting a whole-of-government preventive approach that would address challenges before they manifest as violent acts. The briefing was moderated by Alex Tiersky of the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

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