Challenges to direct democracy under Corona

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 from our community about direct democracy in Bulgaria with specific reference to the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

In recent decades in Bulgaria, as in many other countries, there is a a serious problem with the social contract. The exercise of state power should be used to protect the public interest: the rights and interests of Bulgarian citizens. But we are witnessing an inexorable widening of the gap between politicians and citizens, which is the main obstacle to the democratic development of our country, despite its 13-year membership in the European Union and its support (expert and financial) in the convergence process with developed European countries. There are complex reasons for the existence of this problem: historical prerequisites, but also by people's psychology, lack of civic consciousness, distorted understanding of civil society and most of all - the suffocating grip of the country’s political-oligarchic model, established and developed thanks to the 30-year criminal transition.

Many sociologists and analysts describe our transition as "criminal" because in Bulgaria, more than anywhere else in Eastern Europe, state property was transformed to private property. Not through free market mechanisms, but through crime. This unfairly benefited a small group of people affiliated with the old regime and harmed the majority of Bulgarians, who were hoping for a fairer and more democratic future. This transformation generated billions, which the local elite now uses to wield a powerful destructive influence on the political, economic and media life in the country.

According to Bulgarian legislation, political power in the country is exercised in two ways - the so-called representative power and directly by the citizens. In reality however, the mechanisms for Bulgarian citizens to exercise their rights are completely blocked. One of the fundamental means of democracy - the elections through which the main state bodies are formed -are deeply flawed. The results of the elections held in the country in recent decades are gained by controlled and bought votes, as well as through gross manipulation preparing the voter lists and counting the ballots. The result is that the mechanism of elections does not fulfil its main function, to legitimise state bodies and to guarantee the protection of the public interest.

We are witnessing a complete antipode to the idea of ​​democracy. The heads of the most significant state institutions are legitimised by the oligarchy. One of the many striking examples is the election of the Prosecutor General last year. The supreme guardian of the law in the country was informally appointed by the oligarch Delyan Peyevski, who has been ruling the country from the shadows for years. Formally, the only candidate in the elections for Prosecutor General was voted "by the members" of the authorised main body of the judiciary - the Supreme Judicial Council. Despite months of protests against the decision, the reaction of the citizens was not taken into account. This once again confirmed the diagnosis that representative power in Bulgaria is false and that, beyond other countries where the mafia just parasitises of modern society, our whole country is owned by the mafia. The oligarchic structures gradually gained total control over the social and political life in the country and through legal initiatives completely eliminated the mechanisms for direct participation of the citizens in the government of the state. In other words, Bulgarian laws doom any democratic initiative: In the last 30 years, no national referendum has been successfully held in Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian democratic transition not only did not achieve any of its announced goals, but deprived the citizens of the opportunity to be a corrective to representative government. Proof of this is impunity for corruption at the highest levels of government. Several corruption scandals involving top government officials have become public knowledge, but so far, no minister has been convicted, and the few who were charged have ended up being acquitted in all courts.

The mechanisms for direct participation of citizens in the government of the state are regulated in the Constitution and in a special law for direct participation of citizens in state power and local self-government. They regulate four forms of direct democracy through which Bulgarian citizens can participate in government, namely:

Referendum (national and local),

Citizens' initiative (national and local),

European Citizens' Initiative and

General assembly of the population.

 The strongest weapon of the citizens is the referendum, but through a series of legislative changes, the whole procedure has become virtually inapplicable:

- There is a high threshold for initiating a national referendum: at least 400.000 citizens with voting rights. (Considering a real number of voters in the country of about 5 million)

- Citizens have only three months for the collection of signatures to initiate a national referendum;

- Citizens can only decide on a limited range of issues in national and local referendums, which makes them unattractive and puts them outside of the public interest;

- Citizens’ initiative organisers are obligated to transfer data on the identity of the citizens who supported the petition from paper into a spreadsheet and they are subsequently disclosed;

- There is a high threshold for the referendum to be valid- the proposal is only accepted if the number turnout is not lower than during the last elections to the National Assembly. This criterion dooms every national referendum to failure. Especially given the large share of "dead souls", voters who are no longer alive, but somehow still vote for the government. In Bulgaria, they reach over 1/3 of the number of registered voters. Unfortunately, the influence of the "dead souls" is even increasing due to the growing apathy of Bulgarians towards politics.

In order to make the exercise of direct democracy in Bulgaria possible, we, a group of citizens living in the country and abroad, have been running an active campaign in the squares of big cities. We are trying to clarify the benefits of direct democracy for every Bulgarian. We are trying to bring the idea of ​​direct choice by the citizens in the formation of the main state bodies. On February 5, 2020, we notified the National Assembly, in accordance with the law, and started a petition to initiate a national referendum with the following proposals:

1. Do you want the Bulgarian Lev to be preserved, and Bulgaria not to enter the currency mechanism and not to adopt the Euro until the average salary in the country reaches the average level in the European Union?

2. Do you want the Bulgarian people to be able to initiate national referendums on all issues within the competence of the National Assembly without restriction?

3. Do you want a mandatory national referendum to be initiated with a minimum of 50,000 signatures of citizens with voting rights, collected for no more than 4 months?

4. Do you want the proposal for a national referendum to be adopted by a simple majority of voters, regardless of how many voters took part in the referendum, just as the result of a political election is accepted regardless of the number of voters in it?

With this initiative we set several goals:

1. To change the legal framework so as to provide a real opportunity for citizens to participate in the governance of the country and to be a corrective to the representative government;

2. To show that ordinary citizens can also influence politics, not just political and other organisations, whose composition and actions are usually selfish;

3. To inform the public with the advocacy campaign about the referendum on the advantages and benefits for the society and the state from the implementation of direct democracy;

4. To support the establishment of civil society with the organisation we are forming in order to organise the petition for the referendum.

Even at the start of the petition in support of the referendum, we faced reality problems of our country, first of all, the very promotion of the initiative. The press conference we held at the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency (The National Intelligence Agency of Bulgaria) in connection with the announcement of the petition for the referendum, was covered by only one electronic media outlet, even though we notified nearly 300 media in the country. This automatically created a negative public attendance, as in Bulgaria there is an unspoken principle - if an event is not covered in the three national television media, then Bulgarian citizens do not accept it as legitimate, even though the trust in these media in question is extremely low. The lack of public access to the media and the extremely weak objectivity in their coverage is the reason why Bulgaria ranks number 111 in the world in terms of freedom of speech.

The second problem was to hire volunteers to collect signatures in the open. In Bulgaria, there is a severe deficit of civic culture for participation in public initiatives, such as the referendum. This deficit has historical roots and can be partly explained by the period before 1989, when in Bulgaria the state decided everything and the people had no say.

Thirdly, there is the reluctance of people who want to support the referendum to provide their personal data, especially the unique civil number, for fear of further repressive actions by the authorities. In this regard, another factor hindering the participation of citizens in such initiatives is the existence of strong dependencies of large groups of the population on economic, ethnic and other grounds, and in small settlements these dependences reach a degree of feudalisation, ie usurpation of the whole power by criminal political-oligarchic groups and to the establishment of total control over the local population.

Another problem is the lack of adequate expert support from the intellectual community. Our initiative was not supported by any civic or political organization or by any well-known political or public figure (except for Assoc. Prof. Grigor Sariyski and Assoc. Prof. Ognyan Boyukliev from the Bulgarian Academy of Science and Daniela Bozhinova, CEO of Bulgarian Association for The Promotion for Citizens Initiative).

The lack of mechanisms, mostly from the state, for financing such civic initiatives can be considered a significant problem. In order to promote each campaign, the appropriate funding is needed to cover the costs of banners, printing of forms, fuel for moving around the country, etc. We, the members of the initiative committee, do not have great financial means, so we opened a bank account of an association created precisely to financially support the organisation of the referendum. We made the bill public for the whole society, for the purpose of transparency and we collected about 1000 euros, which we use for fuel and printing of forms, everything else is at our own expense.

Despite the highlighted obstacles, with a small number of supporters, we launched a campaign to collect signatures in the squares of individual cities. At the end of the first month of the subscription in support of the referendum in Bulgaria, a state    of emergency was imposed in the country (on 13.03.2020) due to the COVID-19 pandemic and this necessitated its temporary suspension. After the abolition of the state of emergency on 14.05.2020, the Speaker of the National Assembly informed us that all deadlines that expire during the state of emergency would be extended by only one month. Thus, the three-month statutory deadline for collecting signatures was actually shortened by one month. In the legal interpretation of the provisions of the law on emergency measures, the deadline for referendums does not fall within its scope and we will appeal in court this illegal shortening of the deadline. We believe that it is unfair, illegal and dooms the collection of the required number of signatures, and hence our initiative of failure.

Unfortunately, in Bulgaria the state power and the political parties are capable of everything in order to prevent the possibility for the participation of the citizens in the government. This will destroy the clientelist structure established in the country. It will "break" the schemes by which the Bulgarian people are robbed.

Regarding the practical application of the mechanisms of direct democracy, we have shared an initiative for remote electronic voting, based on a digital blockchain platform. Today, in the age of high technology and communications, it is unacceptable to limit the possibility of remote participation of citizens in elections and referendums. This will, on the one hand, increase voter turnout, especially in countries like ours, and, on the other hand, allow society to react flexibly and in a timely manner when it witnesses vicious policies by the representative government.

We are determined to turn Bulgaria into a democratic and legal state at any cost and we will fight to the end to build the mechanisms for direct democracy. We are convinced that only through them will citizens be able to achieve their goals.

In conclusion, I can say that for a peaceful, just, prosperous and humane world, it is vital to promote and build a true civil society to replace the façade democracy, established in our country. Only in this way will Bulgarian citizens be able to successfully oppose formal and informal organisations that have a dominant position in politics, power, economy, and the media, and this enables them to impose private interest at the expense of the public interest. Regardless of their form (in the Western world they are more often organised as corporate structures, and in Eastern Europe they exist in the form of organised criminal-oligarchic associations) they bear the same bitter fruits - deepening social inequality, privatised countries by dictators and global corporations, controlled international organisations for peace, human rights and mutual aid, whose facade serves only as a cover for the lack of content.