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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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By that time, the sun had set and the flickering fluorescent lighting in the school hallway where the voting took place was so dim and distracting that everyone—commissioners, observers, and the school’s custodial staff—moved tables, chairs, and the sealed ballot boxes to a better lit atrium so a proper count could proceed. One by one, a grinning commissioner (we later discovered he was candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy ’s representative on the commission) cut the plastic seals on each box and, with pomp, dumped their contents onto a table surrounded by other commissioners eager to see who won and to finish the work they had begun before sunrise, some 18 hours earlier. First, the control sheet deposited in each box before the polls opened was located and set aside. Then, the chairwoman divided the candidates among commissioners so they could begin to stack ballots as they were unfolded and inspected. On a few occasions, a voter’s selection was unclear and so the ballot was presented to the entire commission for scrutiny, followed by a vote on how and whether to record the ambiguous ballot. Many of the 39 candidates on the ballot received no votes and there was often a wisecrack and laughter when any of these candidates received a vote, or even two! Despite the daunting fullness of the ballot boxes, due in part to the physical size of the ballot, the count proceeded apace with only a couple instances of needing to recount a candidate’s stack of votes to reconcile the final numbers needed for the formal protocol. This document would soon be posted outside the precinct for public inspection and sent up the chain to be included in the national tally. Security throughout the count was so strict that an ailing observer was nearly prohibited from leaving the precinct while the count was underway. After seeking the approval of the commission chairwoman, police finally unlocked the doors and allowed the observer to depart. These rules, as explained to us, were in place to prohibit any ballots from being brought into or out of the precinct. Based on the increasing grumblings of commissioners as night turned to early morning, this prohibition on leaving seemed to motivate commissioners to stay focused on their duties lest they risk witnessing another sunrise at their polling station. The OSCE’s post-election preliminary statement corresponded to our observation of a smooth, even festive in some cases, electoral process that complied with Ukraine’s domestic laws and fulfilled the country’s international commitments. Given the frequent opportunities Ukraine has had to exercise its democratic muscle in recent years, few on the international observation mission led by the OSCE expected anything but the free and fair process we witnessed. As the gold standard of international election observation, the OSCE’s recommendations over many electoral cycles have helped Ukrainian officials to improve the conduct of their elections. Further, praise from the OSCE following election day is powerful validation of the process in the eyes of Ukraine’s voters and gives other states a democratic model to emulate. No sooner had the election ended than the hundreds of thousands of electoral commissioners overseeing Ukraine’s nearly 30,000 local electoral precincts started to prepare for the presidential runoff election on April 21—this time with just two names on the ballot and a decisive outcome. These commissioners are the unsung heroes of a maturing democracy that is simultaneously at war in the East and on an irreversible path to the West. At least they will get a proper break before having to, once again, regroup and oversee Ukraine’s parliamentary elections expected to take place in the fall of this year.

  • Climate Disruption

    By Cade Stone, Max Kampelman Fellow The OSCE was founded on a commitment to cross-border cooperation in the face of indiscriminate regional threats, in pursuit of comprehensive security, and in mutual acknowledgement of the need for sovereignty and stability. Today, as the earth’s climate continues to change, global environmental issues are increasingly tangible security concerns. Climate change stands to magnify both the internal challenges faced by OSCE participating States and the external pressure of mass migration out of critically unstable regions—a redoubled “migrant crisis” in the mold of 2015. “Climate change is having far-reaching effects on agricultural productivity and food security,” warned UN Migration Director General William Lacy Swing on World Food Day 2017. “It is among the main reasons for the record numbers of people compelled to migrate from rural areas to towns and cities around the world.” The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that a large share of migrants come from rural areas where more than 75 percent of the world’s poor and food insecure depend on agriculture and natural resource-based livelihoods. As agricultural yields dwindle, water supplies shrink, and threatened regions become less habitable, poor populations will suffer most immediately and most critically. As atmospheric and oceanic temperatures rise, mounting evidence suggests that natural disasters will become increasingly catastrophic. Displacement rates in disaster-prone areas will increase, along with the costs of crippled infrastructure and lost productivity.   In 2015, according to the FAO, there were already 244 million international migrants, 40 percent more than in 2000. Nineteen million people were internally displaced because of natural disasters. An average of 26 million were displaced annually by climate or weather-related disasters between 2008 and 2015. In a changing global climate showing no signs of reversal, these trends stand only to worsen. It is at this intersection of climate change and migration that the OSCE region may be most immediately threatened. During the 2015 migrant crisis, millions of displaced people fled to Europe from the same regions that now face the greatest risk of further instability; migration flows may surge once more as environmental pressures mount. Stable governments and populations rely on access to vital resources and are thus deeply imperiled by the threat of widespread drought, crop failure, flooding, and other disruptions that climate disruption portends. By this measure, any of the “staging” areas for migrants in North Africa, as well as their origin nations throughout Africa and the Middle East, are already politically fragile. The OSCE has gradually begun to mobilize around the pressing security reality of a changing climate. In the wake of the latest UN Climate Report, Nilza de Sena, chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Economic and Environmental Committee, warned that the effects of climate change are close and potentially disastrous and urged bold action to “accelerate decarbonization and intensify the discussion on the expansion of renewable and sustainable energy and maximizing energy efficiency.” The OSCE also has joined the Environment and Security (ENVSEC) Initiative, a sweeping multi-agency program established to examine the security risks posed by climate change, particularly in Eastern Europe, South Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia. Crucially, the effort treats climate change as a threat multiplier inherent to future national and international security agendas. Its “Climate Change and Security” report analyzed credible domestic security concerns for OSCE member nations, including competition for scarce resources, increased social tension and conflict, loss of trade, and infrastructural damage. The analysis has yet to account for the compounding effects the external pressures of increased migration will inflict, as the same climate shocks ripple across more fragile regional neighbors. Climate disruption and subsequent migration imperils the whole of the OSCE and calls for a defense of its most foundational commitments, from sovereign equality to territorial integrity to interstate cooperation. Action must be taken to prepare for the security crisis on Europe’s doorstep, both in domestic planning and investment abroad. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization calls for massive investment in rural development to bolster opportunity, resiliency, and stability. It has developed Sustainable Development Goals to address the structural drivers of migration and shepherd responsible growth in migrant source countries. Increased investment in infrastructure, ensuring reliable access to resources, and redoubled diplomatic conflict resolution will help stem the instability and conflict that displaces vulnerable populations. Further, the Center for Climate and Security promotes a Responsibility to Prepare framework for European leaders to elevate the institutional awareness and responsiveness to climate insecurity, both in migration hotspots and on Europe’s doorway. ENVSEC’s Climate Change and Security report proposes a portfolio of actionable items to better brace OSCE project nations, many of which can and should be implemented broadly across Europe, including raising public urgency, encouraging cross-sectoral policy integration, and incorporating increased cross-border cooperation on climate projections and vulnerability assessments. Finally, the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate accords need not preclude it from climate leadership within the OSCE. It remains uniquely poised to help foster the vital regional cooperation needed to meaningfully address these challenges. European security was shaken by the migration crisis of 2015. Political stability across the continent was undermined and fringe populist forces emboldened in its wake. Unless concerted, collective action is taken quickly, the coming waves of climate migration could make past surges look like ripples. The U.S. and OSCE have both a mandate and responsibility to lead.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Mob Attacks on Roma in Europe

    WASHINGTON—Following reports of a mob attack against the Roma community and a police station in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) today issued the following statement: “I am very disturbed by the increasing frequency of mob attacks on Roma in Europe—most recently in Bulgaria, but also in Italy, France, and the Czech Republic. Governments must do more to counter the corrosive effects of hate-mongering and protect their most vulnerable communities from bias-motivated crimes. “The violence in Bulgaria is particularly concerning. As they say in the horror movies, ‘the call is coming from inside your house.’ An attack on a government institution like a police station is an attack on democracy itself.” Reports indicate that earlier this week, an anti-Roma group attacked the police station in Gabrovo when officers refused to turn over three Roma to the mob following an altercation at a local shop. Some Romaní homes were subsequently destroyed. The attack comes on the heels of recent anti-Roma rhetoric at the highest levels of the Government of Bulgaria. In February, Bulgarian Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Krasimir Karakachanov proposed offering free abortions to limit the Roma birthrate. In early April, a mob attacked 70 Roma, including children, in a suburb of Rome, Italy. Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the attack.  Similar attacks on Roma in the town of Dvorec in the Czech Republic forced a Romani family to leave the area. Three Romani children were subsequently attacked in the Czech village of Lipník nad Bečvou. In France in late March, false kidnapping accusations against Roma circulated on social media were associated with gang attacks on Roma in France. Local police issued statements to quell the disinformation. 

  • Hastings, Wicker, Watkins, and Cardin Introduce Resolutions Celebrating Romani American Heritage

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of International Roma Day on April 8, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Steve Watkins (KS-02), and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced resolutions in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.Res.292) and the U.S. Senate (S.Res.141) celebrating Romani American heritage. They issued the following joint statement: “Roma enrich the fabric of our nation. They have been part of every wave of European migration to the United States since the colonial period, tying our country to Europe and building the transatlantic bond. Through this resolution, we celebrate our shared history and applaud the efforts to promote transnational cooperation among Roma at the historic First World Romani Congress on April 8, 1971.” In addition to recognizing and celebrating Romani American heritage and International Roma Day, the resolutions commemorate the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the so-called “Gypsy Family Camp” at Auschwitz when, on August 2-3, 1944, Nazis murdered between 4,200 and 4,300 Romani men, women, and children in gas chambers in a single night. They also commend the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its critically important role in promoting remembrance of the Holocaust and educating audiences about the genocide of Roma. April 8 is recognized as “International Roma Day” around the world. It celebrates Romani culture and raises awareness of the issues facing Romani people. 

  • Slovakia's Chairmanship of the OSCE

    In 2019, Slovakia holds the chairmanship of the world’s largest regional security organization: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which brings together 57 countries from North America, Europe and Central Asia. At the Helsinki Commission’s first hearing in the 116th Congress held on April 3, 2019, Slovakia’s Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Miroslav Lajčák, was invited to discuss the chairmanship’s priorities for the OSCE in 2019 and its plans for progress. Minister Lajčák was received by Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), along with Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker, Ranking House Member Rep. Joe Wilson, and Commissioners Sen. Cory Gardner, Rep. Gwen Moore, and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. Chairman Hastings encouraged Minister Lajčák to meet with civil society during his country visits as Chair-in-Office, including in the United States.  Co-Chairman Wicker observed, “[a]t a time when civil society is under threat in so many countries, we look to you, as the Chair, to ensure that people’s voices are heard in the OSCE.” Minister Lajčák stated that “resolving conflicts and mitigating their impact on people” in countries suffering from “economic instability, political instability, [and] human rights violations” is a priority for Slovakia’s Chairmanship. He focused on Ukraine due to the severity of the country’s conflicts, while also acknowledging those in other areas of the OSCE region such as Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, for which Co-Chairman Wicker emphasized the need for the OSCE to “strengthen the process of democratic reform, fight against corruption, and fight against regional instability.” The minister emphasized that his goal will be to focus on a list of nine concrete measures that would “bring about small, but concrete, results and improvement [in Ukraine] for the people on the ground,” such as humanitarian demining and repairing civilian infrastructure. He asserted that repairing Stanytsoa Lukanska, a bridge which serves as a key piece of transportation infrastructure in the Luhansk area, is the most important of these measures. The minister also emphasized the need to ensure a safer future, especially for young people, by countering cyberterrorism and its (mis)use in organized crime and human trafficking. He emphasized the importance of educating youth in matters related to cybersecurity, including emerging threats such as cyberterrorism. To that end, Slovakia’s chairmanship will use its convening authority “to call attention to new trends and explore potential collaborative impact.” Chairman Hastings optimistically remarked that “young people know a hell of a lot more about [cyber security and technology] than we do” and Commissioner Moore commended Mr. Lajčák for focusing on the youth – “it is a quintessential strategy for preventing chaos.” Finally, the Slovak Chair-in-Office focused on multilateralism, considered by Minister Lajčák as a “fundamental problem-solving and war-preventing” tool both in and outside of the OSCE. Furthermore, Minister Lajčák emphasized the importance of “working together on multilateral platforms [which] is inevitable if we want to safeguard peace and prosperity to our people,” calling the OSCE “the platform to do just that.” He affirmed this priority of co-operation between OSCE participating States in response to a concern raised by Commissioner Moore regarding certain participating State’s “violations [of all] the Helsinki principles” which would undermine multilateralism within the OSCE: “We have to […] look eye-to-eye and talk about issues […] that is what makes the OSCE unique.” Throughout the hearing, the Chair-in-Office stressed an intent to counter terrorism in his priorities. Part of the minister’s first conference to encourage youth education involved “promoting tolerance and non-discrimination, and the best practices in combating modern-day anti-Semitism,” to stem terrorism. Furthermore, a second conference, held a week before the hearing, “focused on preventing and countering terrorism as well as violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism.” The minister asserted that “terrorism and violent extremism pose as grave a threat as ever” and that “we, at the OSCE, need to continue updating and adapting our toolbox” to be prepared for the future. Despite specific victories, such as the recent destruction of the remaining Daesh strongholds, the minister advised that “this is not a time to get comfortable,” and that “we need to address the root causes [of terrorism] and stay one step ahead.” The OSCE Chair-in-Office also addressed regional challenges including Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine; protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; increasing instability in the Western Balkans; and Turkey’s campaign to stifle dissent in every sector. Many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. However, Chairman Hastings is optimistic about the capability of the OSCE to advance the rule of law, human rights, and non-discrimination its participating States. Minister Lajčák expressed confidence that providing concrete measures to improve the daily lives of those living in conflict, educating youth, and encouraging multilateral engagement on their behalf will lead to positive developments throughout the OSCE region.

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