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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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    WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman of the Commission, released the following statement regarding the observation of International Roma Day:  “In a number of OSCE countries, Roma continue to be denied equal access to housing, suffer disproportionately from high unemployment, and routinely face discrimination in public life. Racial profiling by police, mass evictions, and forced expulsions are commonplace. “Roma children are underserved by governments that fail to guarantee them access to a quality education. In some countries, systematic segregation removes Roma from regular schools and places them into educational institutions designed for children with learning disabilities. Some Roma children succeed against overwhelming odds; the vast majority of them are left behind. “In response to this human tragedy, European governments have promoted ‘action plans’ and ‘framework strategies’ for Roma over the past two decades. However, these efforts have largely lacked a key ingredient for success: political will. On International Roma Day, we strongly urge the governments of OSCE participating nations to renew their commitment to defending and promoting basic human rights of Roma throughout the region.”

  • Chairman Smith Condemns Brutal Murder of Former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov

    WASHINGTON—Following tonight’s reports of the shooting death of peaceful opposition leader and former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Helsinki Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statement:   “I condemn the brutal slaying of Boris Nemtsov in the strongest terms possible. The gangland-style murder of a leading Russian dissident on the streets of Moscow raises the question of whether bullets have replaced the ballot box in Russia, and whether any peaceful opposition voice is safe. We mourn Mr. Nemtsov’s death and send our deepest condolences to his family and friends.” According to Russian officials, Mr. Nemtsov was shot four times in the back on a street near the Kremlin. A leader of Russia’s political opposition, he was a co-founder of Solidarity and a key organizer of a scheduled March 1 protest in Moscow. Mr. Nemtsov served as First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia under President Boris Yeltsin. He spoke at a Helsinki Commission event in Washington in November 2010 at the world premiere of the film “Justice for Sergei.”

  • Chairman Smith and Serbian Foreign Minister Support OSCE Role in Promoting Peace in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON–On February 25, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, held a hearing at which Ivica Dacic, the Foreign Minister of Serbia and Chairman-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), testified as to his plans for Serbia’s 2015 leadership of the OSCE. The chief issue facing the organization is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the humanitarian needs of the people of eastern Ukraine, including the OSCE’s role in monitoring the Minsk cease-fire agreement. Both Russia and Ukraine are among the 57 member states of the OSCE, the world’s largest regional security organization. Opening the hearing, Chairman Smith said that Foreign Minister Dacic’s leadership of the OSCE “comes at a moment of tragedy, of tremendous human suffering.” Smith emphasized that “one OSCE member – the Russian government – is tearing the heart out of a neighboring member, Ukraine.” “Understanding that the OSCE is a consensus organization – meaning that the Russian government has an effective veto over many significant actions – we believe that the OSCE is still able and responsible to speak the truth about the conflict, to find ways to limit it, and to help the people of Ukraine,” he said. Foreign Minister Dacic emphasized that “the Serbian Chairmanship will make every effort to help restore peace in Ukraine.” In its role as Chairman of the OSCE, Dacic said, “Serbia brings to the table good relations with all the key stakeholders, and we are making every effort to serve as an honest broker and use our leadership role to utilize the OSCE toolbox impartially and transparently.” Foreign Minister Dacic also discussed the fight against human trafficking and anti-Semitism with Chairman Smith.  Other members of the Helsinki Commission participating in the hearing included Senator Ben Cardin, and Congressmen Joe Pitts, Alcee Hastings, and Steve Cohen.

  • Serbia's Leadership of the OSCE

    In 2015 Europe was faced with a number of security and human rights concerns, especially with regard to Russian aggression in Ukraine. In this hearing, OSCE Chairman-in-Office Ivica Dačić testified to several Commissioners about Serbia's plans for leadership of the OSCE in 2015. He noted that in addition to persistent efforts supporting Ukraine's security and territorial integrity, they would place a special emphasis on strengthening rule of law, freedom of expression, and freedom of the media. Mr. Dačić also emphasized that the active engagement of the United States within the OSCE is critical to the organization's effectiveness.

  • Chairman Smith Urges OSCE Leaders: Respond to Humanitarian Needs in Eastern Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—A renewed effort is underway in the Organization for Cooperation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to urge it to respond to humanitarian needs in eastern Ukraine, and to follow through on OSCE commitments to fight human trafficking and anti-Semitism. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) led the U.S. Delegation to the annual Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) last week in Vienna, where he spearheaded this push. Smith expressed particular concern about the potential for human trafficking of vulnerable groups stemming from the current conflict in Ukraine. In a question to Ivica Dačić, the OSCE’s Chairman-in-Office for 2015 and the Foreign Minister of Serbia, Smith drew attention to the needs of internally displaced persons and the potential for human trafficking in eastern Ukraine. He noted that, among the nearly one million internally displaced persons, woman and children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, and raised concerns that criminal gangs are taking advantage of the conflict:   “Is the OSCE equipping the special monitoring mission and other OSCE entities working in the Ukraine conflict zone, or with IDPs, to recognize and protect human trafficking victims, and is the OSCE taking trafficking prevention measures for this particular vulnerable population?” At a private meeting during the event, Chairman Smith met with Chairman-in-Office Dačić  to discuss the humanitarian, human rights, and security concerns arising from the Russian-backed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Smith encouraged Serbia to vigorously uphold the commitments made at the at the 10th  anniversary of the OSCE's Berlin Conference on anti-Semitism, and to review and reform the OSCE’s contracting regulations to ensure that OSCE activities do not contribute to trafficking in persons. He also urged Chairman-in-Office Dačić to promote an appropriate commemoration by the OSCE of the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Chairman Smith also met the Director of the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Michael Georg Link. In addition to human trafficking and anti-Semitism, the two discussed OSCE election observation missions, as well as the organization’s current efforts to protect freedom of religion. In a meeting with Ambassador Madina Jarbussynova, the OSCE Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, Chairman Smith spoke about the most effective ways to fight human trafficking and assist with the rehabilitation of trafficking victims – including by working with faith-based organizations, as well as by encouraging participating States to adopt legislation preventing child sex tourism, such as Chairman Smith’s legislation currently pending in the U.S. Senate. Chairman Smith has pioneered OSCE engagement in fighting human trafficking and anti-Semitism. Since 2004, he has served as the OSCE PA’s Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues – click here to read his most recent report. Starting in 2002, Smith led the movement to put anti-Semitism on the agenda of the OSCE, and he continues to work closely with Rabbi Andy Baker, the OSCE’s Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism, to ensure a more vigorous implementation of OSCE commitments in the area. In 2005 Smith authored H. Res. 199, a landmark congressional resolution recognizing the atrocity at Srebrenica in which an estimated 8,000 civilian men and boys were murdered by Serb forces as a genocide.

  • Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Serbia’s Leadership of the OSCE” Wednesday, February 25, 2015 2:30PM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Serbia’s 2015 Chairmanship-in-Office of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) comes at a pivotal point in European security. The OSCE, a regional security organization based known for its work in promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, operates on the front lines of Russia-Ukraine conflict and seeks to counter backsliding on human rights in other countries of the OSCE region.   Serbia’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, H.E. Ivica Dačić, will testify before the Helsinki Commission in his capacity as Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE. He takes the helm to conclude the implementation of a joint leadership plan developed with Switzerland, which chaired the OSCE in 2014. Minister Dačić is expected to discuss the Serbian Chairmanship-in-Office’s priorities, including resolution of the conflict in and around Ukraine; reconciliation and cooperation in the Western Balkans; reforming security sector governance; combating transnational threats, including foreign terrorist fighters, terrorism, and cyber-security; safeguarding journalists; fostering freedom of expression, assembly, and association; combating organized crime and its linkages to human trafficking; combating corruption; and improving water governance. He will also provide insights regarding the ongoing work of the OSCE.

  • Chairman Smith Calls for Strong International Response to Slaughter of Egyptian Christians in Libya

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Congressional panel that oversees global human rights and the Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, issued the following statement following the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya by the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS): “My heart and prayers go out to the families and friends of these 21 Egyptian men savagely murdered in Libya. These men, earning money to support their families in Egypt, were killed in the most deliberately shocking fashion because of their Christian faith. ISIS has set no limits on its ferocity, and everywhere targets people of other faiths. In Iraq and Syria it has murdered thousands of Christians and members of other religious minorities and forced hundreds of thousands of them to flee their homes. “The muted response of so many leading governments of the world and the international press to this latest outrage is an ominous sign for the future of the Middle East. If we drift toward a tacit acceptance of genocide – and the Genocide Convention covers ‘intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group’ – we will only have more of it. “I welcome the strong response of Egyptian President  Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to these brutal murders. It is also heartening that he attended Mass at the Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo this past Christmas Eve, the first time an Egyptian president has joined Copts for this annual liturgy. “President Obama should lead other heads of state in a movement to support the Egyptian President and other Middle Eastern leaders willing to protect their religious minorities. This sometimes requires tact – but it urgently requires energy. The minorities that require protection include Christians from many churches and denominations, Jews, Yezidi – and Muslims as well, Shia in some areas and Sunni in others.” Chairman Smith has long been a leader on many international human rights issues. In recent years he has chaired a series of hearings that drew attention to the persecution, discrimination, and disadvantage that Coptic Christians have faced in Egypt over the decades – particularly violence against Coptic women and girls. Since 1995, Egypt has been one of the six Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The other Mediterranean Partners are Algeria, Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. OSCE participating States (representing 57 countries in Europe and Eurasia and Canada and the United States) and the Partners work together to improve human rights, security, and the rule of law.

  • Rep. Chris Smith, Sen. Roger Wicker to Lead Helsinki Commission

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) has been appointed by Speaker of the House John Boehner as chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, during the 114th Congress. Senator Roger Wicker (MS) has been appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to co-chair the Commission. “Today, the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act are under attack. The Russian government is blatantly violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” said Chairman Smith. “More than 20 million people are trafficked each year for sexual or other forms of exploitation. Journalists in the OSCE region are being imprisoned, tortured, and even murdered for exposing corruption or publishing controversial pieces. In Europe, violent anti-Semitism is again rearing its ugly head, and in some OSCE countries religious people face restrictions and even persecution merely for practicing their faith.” “The United States must advocate much more vigorously for those who are victims and are voiceless. As the chair of the bipartisan, bicameral Helsinki Commission, I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms and to safeguard the principles shared by the 57 participating States of the OSCE,” said Chairman Smith, who has been an active member of the Helsinki Commission since 1983. “I am pleased to join Chairman Smith and the other members of the Helsinki Commission in defending democratic values and the rule of law,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Peace and security are under threat in the wake of escalating Russian aggression – impacting our economic and strategic interests in the region. This situation calls for a unified response from the United States and our OSCE partner countries. We should work together to ensure a safe, free, and prosperous Europe for this generation and those that follow.” Chairman Smith has previously chaired the Commission and serves as a member of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), which facilitates inter-parliamentary dialogue among the 57 participating States; he is also the OSCE PA’s Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. Senator Wicker also serves as a member of the OSCE PA, where he chairs the Committee on Political Affairs and Security.

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