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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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    Germany is now only second to the United States in the number of migrants it annually welcomes to its borders. Predominantly from other European Union Member States, migrants now account for roughly 16.3 million residents, or 20 percent of the German population, putting Germany on course to becoming one of Europe’s most diverse countries. Against the backdrop of an uptick in far-right extremism, anti-Muslim marches, continuing anti-Semitism, and parliamentary efforts to introduce anti-migrant policies, Germany’s diverse citizenry is stepping forward to make Germany more welcoming.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Notes Challenges, Need for Action on International Human Rights Day

    WASHINGTON—To mark International Human Rights Day, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: "It has been a difficult year for those of us who are active in human rights in the OSCE region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has flagrantly violated the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act, exacerbated regional security, and further revealed the weaknesses of Russia’s own democracy .  The space for civil society – the guardians of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms – is shrinking in more than a few of our participating States, including Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary, breeding abuse of power and corruption. We have been appalled by violent anti-Semitic attacks and a rising tide of intolerance across the OSCE region against minorities and other vulnerable populations.  Uzbekistan holds the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist, who languishes alongside of thousands of political prisoners. "Clearly, the challenges for the countries of the OSCE are as great as ever.  We look forward to supporting Serbia’s 2015 chairmanship of the OSCE, which offers an opportunity both for the country and for the organization. As the effective successor to the only country to be suspended from the Helsinki process, Serbia is a concrete example of how a country can turn things around and how the OSCE can contribute. "In particular, we urge Serbia to build on decisions adopted at last week's Basel Ministerial Council on combating anti-Semitism and corruption.  These are challenges faced by virtually every OSCE participating State. We hope that Serbia will move forward with conviction to support these initiatives and to defend and advocate for the Helsinki principles throughout the region." December 10, International Human Rights Day, celebrates the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Host Premiere Screening of "The Gang"

    WASHINGTON—The U.S. Helsinki Commission, with the participation of Freedom House and the German Marshall Fund of the United States, today announced the following event: The Gang: 15 Years On and Still Silent A Documentary about Enforced Disappearances in Belarus Wednesday, December 17 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm United States Capitol Visitor Center, Room HVC-201 First Street, SE, Washington, DC In 1999 and 2000, during the first presidential term of Alexander Lukashenka, four prominent leaders were abducted in Belarus: Viktar Hanchar, a member of the dissolved parliament; Anatoly Krasovsky, his close associate; Yuri Zakharenka, a former Minister of the Interior; and Dmitri Zavadski, a journalist known for his critical reporting.  Each of the cases has remained under separate investigation, plagued by minimal progress and multiple inconsistencies. Fifteen years later, as the statute of limitations is running out, a leading Belarusian human rights defender meticulously analyzes rare documentary evidence, including the testimonies of family members, lawyers, and former Belarusian investigators, to piece together a nuanced and unsettling picture that links the unsolved disappearances together. The Gang examines the complicity of senior Belarusian officials in the enforced disappearances, alongside the failure of the Belarusian authorities to properly investigate. The premiere screening of the film is open to the public, and will be followed by a discussion with Raisa Mikhailovskaya, producer and prominent Belarusian human rights defender, and Irina Krasovskaya, co-founder of the We Remember Foundation and the widow of the disappeared businessman Anatoly Krasovsky.

  • OSCE Must Act on Anti-Semitism

    Germany, in cooperation with the Swiss Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), held the Berlin Tenth Anniversary Conference on Anti-Semitism on November 12-13, 2014, against the backdrop of the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict.   The Conference was set to be a commemorative meeting acknowledging government efforts to combat anti-Semitism over the past decade.  However, the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents such as those that resulted in deaths in Kansas, Brussels, and Toulouse earlier this year, dictated that the meeting focus on a way forward to address current problems. Although the Conference attracted a notably lower level of attendance than it did a decade earlier, participants identified key opportunities for coalition development and OSCE action in the years to come. The Conference was attended by some 550 participants (including approximately 200 civil society representatives), and featured high-level panelists and speakers including Ambassador Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations; Miroslav Lajcák, Slovak Republic Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs; Lynne Yelich, Minister of State of Canada; Paavo Lipponen, Former Prime Minister of Finland; and Tzachi Hanegbi, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Urges Russia to Cease Blatant Violations of OSCE Principles

    WASHINGTON—On the conclusion of the December 4-5 OSCE Ministerial Council in Basel, Switzerland, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statement: “The OSCE Ministerial this year has been exceptional. I welcome the fact that an overwhelming majority of OSCE countries condemned the unlawful occupation of Crimea, defended the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and called for Russia to end its support for violence in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s illegal activities in Ukraine have violated the most fundamental principles of the Helsinki Final Act, on which the OSCE is based. “Moving forward, the OSCE must focus on the implementation of its core commitments. The OSCE PA has spoken to this issue by passing a resolution I introduced in July, calling on Russia to cease its clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of Helsinki principles, not only in Ukraine but regarding other neighbors and at home as well. “Other serious human rights concerns in the OSCE region were spotlighted by the absence of some leading figures from this year’s Ministerial meeting. “While Turkmenistan’s current ambassador to the OSCE addressed his counterparts in Basel, the fate of his predecessor, Batyr Berdiev – as well as some 100 other prisoners – remains unknown. I welcome the Swiss Chairmanship’s efforts to address the issues of torture and enforced disappearances during their chairmanship and call on Turkmenistan to tell the families of Ambassador Berdiev and the other disappeared persons what has happened to their loved ones. “In addition, Rasul Jafarov was prevented from leading a civil society discussion on freedom of expression in Basel. Jafarov remains imprisoned in Azerbaijan in retaliation for his activism. Eldeniz Hajiyev, another human rights activist, was unable to travel to Basel because she is under house arrest in Baku. I commend the 43 OSCE countries which worked to advance an OSCE decision on freedom of expression and urge Azerbaijan to cease its flagrant persecution of independent civil society activists.”

  • Bipartisan U.S. Delegation Defends Ukraine, Raises Concerns about Russia at OSCE Parliamentary Session

    From June 27 to July 3, 2014, a bicameral, bipartisan delegation of eight Members of Congress represented the United States at the annual session of the OSCE’s 57-nation Parliamentary Assembly in Baku, Azerbaijan. The delegation, which was organized by the U.S. Helsinki Commission, also made side visits to Georgia and Moldova. The congressional delegation was led by the Commission Chairman, Senator Ben Cardin (MD), while the Co-Chairman, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04) was head of delegation at the Assembly session. The Commission’s Ranking Senator, Roger Wicker (MS) and House Commissioners Robert Aderholt (AL-04) and Phil Gingrey (GA-11) also participated, along with Senator Tom Harkin (IA) and Representatives David Schweikert (AZ-06) and Adam Schiff (CA-28). A central concern at the Assembly meeting, as well as during bilateral interaction with the authorities and people of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova, was Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea and its incursions into eastern Ukraine. The congressional delegation was highly critical of Moscow’s attempt to reassert its domination over the affairs of its neighbors more than two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and it reassured friends and allies of the deep and continuing commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in Europe and throughout the OSCE region.

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