Bulgaria has become a highly frequented destination for EU officials and foreign visitors at large since the country took up the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union in January 2018. On arrival in the capital city of Sofia, these days a foreign visitor may see a host of petitions circulated in the streets and hence may jump to the conclusion that Bulgaria has transformed from a post-totalitarian state into a good democracy where people have a direct say in policy-making.
This would be wrong.
By Daniela Bozhinova, Board Member of Democracy International and chairperson of the Bulgarian Association for the Promotion of Citizens Initiatives.
It is true that a number of petitions calling for a national referendum have been started recently, but none of them has been launched with the intention of achieving a real popular vote.
National initiatives and referendums are in fact impossible to have in Bulgaria. This has been proven, and ruthlessly at that, for the last time in 2016 at the cost of enormous civic resources and enthusiasm, that are now morphing into apathy and cynicism.
The national referendum of 2016 was the first citizen-driven referendum. It was also the first to tackle the salient questions of the functioning, or rather dysfunction, of the political system. The petitioners – the popular TV star Slavi Trifonov and his team - proposed changes in the electoral system. They called for majoritarian elections instead of the current proportional representation system, as well as for a significant reduction of the exorbitant public subsidy for political parties. The majority of the Bulgarian electorate (51%) turned out on election day. Over 2.5 million (over 70%) voted in favor of these proposals.
The referendum produced the most legitimate decision in Bulgarian politics since the downfall of communism, despite obstructions and foul play by the political establishment. The legislature attempted to change the referendum rules while the signatures were being checked! The three initial questions on the petition were slashed and the electoral administration asked for a full electronic copy of the paper petition. Which meant that the personal data of 700,000 signatories needed to be manually entered into electronic files by the petitioners. A smear campaign was waged against the organizers and finally, on election day some voters were not given referendum ballots but only ballots for the coinciding presidential elections.
Regardless of the high legitimacy of the result, it was not respected by the state. The formal reason for this was insufficient turnout. For a popular vote to be binding, the Referendum Act requires that the number of people voting in the referendum be equal or exceed the number of voters who had turned out in the previous parliamentary elections. Moreover, they look at absolute number and not at the percentage of the population. This is the only quorum of its kind in the known referendum legislation throughout the world. The number of voters in the 2014 general election was 3,500,585 and the 2016 referendum was 12, 000 people short of reaching that. That this was grounds to disregard the referendum is absurd, especially if you consider the negative demographic tendency. The “sufficient” number of voters in the 2014 general election represented just 48% of the electorate, while the “insufficient” referendum turnout represented 51% of the electorate in 2016!
A nonbinding direct decision by the Bulgarian citizens is bound by law to return to the legislature for final resolution. This particular provision of the Referendum Act, however, was not respected by the Bulgarian parliament. The deputies turned a blind eye to the will of the people and the rule of law. They never debated the referendum outcome and no decision was made whatsoever on the referendum proposals. Not a hint of an electoral reform. Not a cent less of public subsidy for the parliamentary parties.
A plea to declare the turnout provision unconstitutional, which was submitted to the National Ombudsman by committees and petitioners, has been shelved and is awaiting response for over half a year now.
Since the democratic transition, three popular votes have taken place and none of them were formally valid or politically respected. The highly frustrating experience of the Bulgarian voters with national referendums has only added new disappointment to the increasing disillusionment with the political system and the “democratic” rule of the country. After 28 years of democratization, Bulgaria has not succeeded in becoming a consolidated democracy, what is more the country has been slipping in democracy indices over the last decade due to increased weakness of democratic institutions, creeping authoritarianism, corruption and disregard for the rule of law. A major flaw of the defective Bulgarian democracy has been the disempowerment of citizens to meaningfully participate in policy-making.
This spring has seen renewed calls for national referendums and new signature-gathering campaigns. All have been launched by political parties, some of which had been instrumental in the making of the absurd Referendum Act. Petitions, however, are mostly ignored by passers-by in the street. People know from experience that they are not worth the effort.
Meant by the Constitution to be an empowering instrument in the hands of the voters, national referendums have de facto been captured by parties and politicians. The capture works two ways: prohibitive legislation, made by the political establishment, ensures the failure of any “rebellion” or reform from below and at the same time reserves initiatives and referendums for party use as a populist instrument to gain in image and legitimacy.
Invited by a group of civic activists from neighboring Greece to comment on direct democracy workings in my country these days, I had to offer a positive something to light up this dismal picture. “The good news about national referendums in Bulgaria is that they have proven the timelessness of your ancient myths,“ I said „ It takes a Hercules, a semigod (in our case a TV-star) to handle the labors of the signature-gathering and kill all the fearsome monsters on the road to the popular vote. And when Hercules arrives at the end of the road thinking he has won, it turns out he is not a victorious Hercules, but a doomed Sisyphus, tired of pushing the boulder uphill, accomplishing nothing.”