Rosen Milenov is a Bulgarian advocate for direct democracy who works as a private consultant and runs a market research firm. This contribution is a blog about direct democracy in Bulgaria with specific reference to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Rosen Milenov writes about the importance of civil society in Bulgaria and its role of legitimising the social contract between the government and its citizens. Many observers have commented on the “criminal” takeover of Bulgarian democracy by a corrupt oligarchy over the last 30 years. Consequently, the electoral system has been compromised, causing the delegitimization of state bodies and misrepresentation of the public will. This leaves direct democracy as a fundamental mechanism for citizens to act as a corrective to representative government. In Bulgaria, direct participation of citizens is enshrined in the constitution, most notably in the form of referenda. However, it is extremely difficult for referenda to be successfully launched due to a very high participation threshold (400 000 signatures), short time-frame for collecting signatures (3 months), limited scope of issues qualifying for referenda and the disclosure of supporters’ personal information when supporting causes.
Against this background, a group of Bulgarian citizens have been running an active promotional campaign in city squares expounding the benefits of direct democracy to Bulgarians. A petition was also started to initiate a national referendum on several pressing concerns related to direct democracy and potential integration into the Eurozone. This petition was hindered by a number of factors such as limited national media coverage, a historic deficit in civic participation originating from pre-1989 totalitarian control and fears concerning the documentation of personal information from supporters. These hinderances are further compounded by limited support from the intellectual community in Bulgaria and a lack of funding for the initiative.
Notwithstanding these difficulties, the campaign for collecting signatures gained momentum in the first months of 2020. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a state of emergency was imposed in Bulgaria from 13.03.2020-14.05.2020. Organisers of the petition were only given an extension of one month for gathering the signatures, effectively shortening the deadline by a month. This is seen as a misuse of state power during the state of emergency and an appeal has been launched against the ruling. Supporters of the referendum remain resolute in promoting the value of direct democracy in legitimising and regulating the relationship between the state and its citizens.