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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—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Combating Corruption in the OSCE Region: The Link between Security and Good Governance” Wednesday, November 19, 2014 10:00AM U.S. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 203-202 Combating corruption is increasingly recognized as the critical factor in ensuring long-term security, because corruption creates fertile ground for social upheaval and instability. The change in government in Ukraine earlier this year is a prime example of how corruption can fuel legitimate popular discontent. Although the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has created new tools to address corruption, tackling the problem requires more than raising awareness and sharing best practices. In many OSCE participating States, systemic issues including lack of media freedom, lack of political will, and lack of an independent judiciary contribute substantially to persistent high-level and low-level corruption. The hearing will draw attention to the work of the OSCE in combating corruption in all 57 participating States, with a particular emphasis on the need to build effective institutions and the important role played by civil society in combatting corruption. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Halil Yurdakul Yigitgüden, Coordinator for Economic and Environmental Affairs, OSCE Khadija Ismayilova, Host of "Isden Sonra" ("After Work"), RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service Shaazka Beyerle, Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and Senior Advisor with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict Anders Åslund, Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Public Briefing on Ukrainian Elections

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following public briefing: “Ukraine’s Pivotal Parliamentary Poll” Friday, November 14, 2014 2:00PM – 3:30PM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 608 On October 26, Ukraine held early parliamentary elections that international observers—including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—assessed as largely positive, with the exception of the disenfranchisement of voters in Russian-occupied Crimea and southeastern Ukraine. The elections, which swept into power Ukraine’s most pro-Western parliament in history, represented a critical milestone in the country’s democratic evolution.   Experts from three major organizations with decades of on-the-ground experience in Ukraine will examine the conduct and results of the elections, as well as the potential for the newly elected parliament to confront the coming challenge of forging a democratic, secure, independent future for their strategically important country. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Olha Aivazovska, Board Chair, Ukrainian citizen network OPORA Katie Fox, Deputy Director, Eurasia, National Democratic Institute Stephen Nix, Director of Eurasia, International Republican Institute Gavin Weise, Deputy Director, Europe and Eurasia, International Foundation for Electoral Systems

  • Annual OSCE Human Rights Meeting Dominated by Russia and Ukraine

    Representatives of governments and civil society from OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, from September 22 to October 3, 2014 for the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The meeting was organized by the OSCE office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) under the leadership of its newly-appointed Director Michael Link. This year’s annual OSCE human dimension implementation meeting drew 1,225 participants from 53 countries, including 700 NGOs.  There were an unprecedented 82 side events on specific countries or issues.  The session on tolerance and nondiscrimination was the most oversubscribed of the three-hour sessions with 85 people vying for the speaker’s list. Other specific topics for HDIM sessions included violence against women, rights of migrants and right of national minorities. In this issue: About the U.S. HDIM Delegation Russia Takes Propaganda Campaign to Warsaw OSCE Ambassadors Visit Auschwitz Civil Society Speaks Up

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Welcomes Candidacies of Germany, Austria for Future OSCE Chairs

    WASHINGTON—On November 4, Germany formally announced its candidacy for the 2016 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), followed by Austria, which announced its candidacy for the 2017 chairmanship. In response, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, issued the following joint statement: “We welcome the initiative demonstrated by the German and Austrian governments during a pivotal moment in the history of the OSCE. The leadership of these nations, which have been committed to the Helsinki Process from the very beginning, will be vital. We thank them in advance for their willingness to lead and for their drive to advance the cause of human rights, democracy, and international cooperation among our participating States.” The OSCE Chairmanship rotates annually among the 57 participating States, and is decided by consensus. The post of the Chairperson-in-Office (CiO) is held by the Foreign Minister of the participating State selected to hold the Chairmanship. The CiO is assisted by the previous and succeeding Chairpersons; the three of them together are known as the Troika, which ensures continuity and consistency in the OSCE’s work. Switzerland currently holds the OSCE Chairmanship, and Serbia will assume the OSCE Chairmanship in January 2015.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Congratulates Ukraine on Successful Parliamentary Election

    WASHINGTON—Following the successful parliamentary election in Ukraine on October 26, Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, issued the following statement: “We congratulate the people of Ukraine on yesterday’s parliamentary election. According to election observers, including those from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the election was held in accordance with international norms and upheld Ukraine’s democratic commitments to its citizens.   Unfortunately, voters in many parts of Donetsk and Luhansk were prevented from exercising their democratic rights through the interference of illegal armed groups. In addition, no voting took place on the Crimean peninsula due to its illegal annexation by the Russian Federation earlier this year. Although this casts no doubt on the validity of the overall election, we are reminded that citizens in Ukraine still face serious challenges – both internal and external – as they work to build a stable, independent, and prosperous democracy.   The U.S. will continue to stand with the Ukrainian people and the new Ukrainian government as they forge ahead with their courageous and determined efforts to foster democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Ukraine.”

  • Imprisoned in Uzbekistan: Politically Motivated Cases

    David Killion, chief of staff at the Commission, addressed the limited freedom of expression in the former USSR and the imprisonment of those who speak out against their governments.  Uzbekistan was the focus of the briefing, as it has one of the highest numbers of persons imprisoned on politically motivated charges of any former Soviet country. Human rights activists, journalists, and members of certain religious groups fall victim to restrictive laws and policies that curb basic human rights. He was joined by Steve Swerdlow, Sanjar Umarov, Aygul Bekjan, and Cathy Cosman, who emphasized the consistent reports of widespread abuse and torture in Uzbekistan’s prisons, more than a decade after the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur on Torture concluded that torture was "systematic" in the country's prisons and detention camps. They referenced the Human Rights Watch report that detailed the cases of 34 of Uzbekistan’s most prominent individuals imprisoned on politically-motivated charges, from poor conduct of trials to mistreatment in prison.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Briefing on Politically and Religiously Motivated Imprisonment in Uzbekistan

    WASHINGTON–The United States Helsinki Commission today announced a briefing: “Imprisoned in Uzbekistan: Politically Motivated Cases” Tuesday, October 28, 2014 11:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Uzbekistan has one of the highest numbers of persons imprisoned on politically motivated charges of any former Soviet country. Human rights activists, journalists, and members of certain religious groups fall victim to restrictive laws and policies that curb basic human rights. In addition, there are consistent reports of widespread abuse and torture in Uzbekistan’s prisons, more than a decade after the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur on Torture concluded that torture was "systematic" in the country's prisons and detention camps. Human Rights Watch has issued a new report detailing the cases of 34 of Uzbekistan’s most prominent individuals imprisoned on politically-motivated charges, from poor conduct of trials to mistreatment in prison. While some governments claim that ensuring stability and fighting extremism are paramount, laws restricting political participation, independent journalism, civil society, and freedom of religion may have the opposite effect. This briefing will discuss the Human Rights Watch report and look at what impact such cases may have in Uzbekistan, as well as hear about the human cost directly from a former prisoner and a family member of a current prisoner. Briefers: Steve Swerdlow, Esq., Human Rights Watch Central Asia Researcher and Director, Bishkek Office Dr. Sanjar Umarov, Former political prisoner Aygul Bekjan, Daughter of imprisoned journalist Muhammad Bekjanov Cathy Cosman, Senior Policy Analyst, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

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