Bulgaria's politicians have stopped rigging elections. Now they just buy the votes
In less than a day, the village of Brest, near Pleven, achieved notoriety throughout Bulgaria. In March, shortly before a local by-election, the owner of a small shoe factory gathered a dozen of his workers and gave each 50 leva. The meeting was attended by a man who apparently should not have been there: the mayoral candidate from GERB, or Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria.
A few days later, the National Assembly increased the penalty for ballot-box corruption to six years imprisonment and a fine of up to 20,000 leva. Considering the events in Brest, however, this measure is unlikely to scare parties planning to secure themselves more votes at the European and National Assembly elections in June and July.
Bulgarians are used to scandals about vote buying, as there have been many at all the elections since 1990. The plan has always been more or less the same. Buy the votes of the poorest and most downtrodden sections of society, usually Gypsies.
But the price has changed. At the beginning of the meagre 1990s, the transaction involved bartering packets of flour or sugar or jam jar lids – precious commodities in a country where home-made preserves were not a luxury but a means of survival.
Gradually, the "gifts" became sausages, frozen chickens and kebapcheta.
The Roma in the Filipovtsi ghetto in Plovdiv were promised twice that they would not have to pay their electricity bills, in 1998 by the SDS, or Union of Democratic Forces, mayor and in 2005 by a member of the DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms.
The local elections in 2007 brought about a change. Goods were superseded by cash as a means of payment.
Entrepreneur Nikola Malchev from Sandanski, one of the few convicted of vote buying, gave his workers between 30 and 50 leva to buy their votes for the Future for Sandanski coalition.
The owner of a pharmacy chain in Varna and mayoral candidate, Veselin Mareshki, promised pensioners and the chronically ill cheaper medicines if they voted for him.
To cap it all, Ahmed Dogan, leader of the DPS, told journalists the same year that "vote buying is a common European practice." What are these "European practice" elections like? Before entering the polling booth, the voter receives a mobile phone with a camera. He gets his money or kebapcheta only after proving with a photograph that he has cast a ballot for the "right candidate."
The Central Elections Committee banned the use of mobile phones in the cubicle, but this did not have much effect. For some time, parliament even flirted with the idea of using CCTVs to detect elections fraud, but gave it up to protect civil liberties. In 2008, a mistake revealed the extent of the contagion.
Shortly before a local by-election in Sandanski, the NDSV, or National Movement for Stability and Progress, MP Yani Yanev received a list of 495 voters living in the municipality with the note "Pay the bill!".
But Yanev was from Varna, not Sandanski. His party alerted the National Security Agency, or DANS, to check out another politician with a similar name, Yane Yanev. The result? There has been none. "Some of those interrogated by DANS admitted that they had sold their votes, but refused to testify in court," an NDSV MP told the media.
Today, Yane Yanev, who is the leader of the Order, Law and Justice party and in 2007 had been a supporter of Mareshki, is a regular visitor to DANS.
No, not because he is under official investigation. Making use of well-planned publicity stunts, he submits information about allegedly corrupt high-ranking politicians and police officers and hypothetical disseminators of radical Islam in Bulgaria.
Some opinion polls give him a good chance of securing a seat in the next election.
All this leads to the conclusion that, although it is already 20 years old, Bulgarian democracy is still a toddler. The European Commission has also noted this. One of the criticisms in its report published in the summer of 2008 concerned the low number of investigations and court rulings regarding vote rigging, despite the hundreds of irregularities flagged at the local elections in 2007.
Any bought vote now poses a danger. It may lead to "putting into effect article 7 of the accession treaty, which limits Bulgaria's right to take part in EU decision-making," said Yuliana Nikolova, chairwoman of the European Institute to Mediapool.
The good news is that there will be no more "election tourism," at least for the European parliament election. This has been widely practised by immigrants in Turkey who have dual citizenship. A day or two before the election, they would come to Bulgaria by the coachload and, after voting for the "right candidate" and visiting their relatives, return to Turkey.
Traditionally, the victorious candidate in the areas where this was a common practice was from the DPS.
This time, only Bulgarian citizens who have been resident in the country for the past three months have the right to vote in the European parliament elections.
Unfortunately, it is strongly suspected that the increased penalties for vote buying are just a sop to the European Commission. The events in Brest have helped to feed such speculation. The GERB candidate did win the first and the second round of the election in the village.
And where does the money that political parties spend on vote buying come from? From the European taxpayers' pockets.
Lyudmil Stoykov, who donated 50,000 leva to President Georgi Parvanov's election campaign, is the main character in a disturbing report from OLAF concerning the misuse of EU funding and money laundering. The report points out that there was a "political cover-up" for the businessman. Together with six other people, he now stands accused of money laundering in what is to be a mega trial. The case has not reached court yet, because his lawyers are constantly "on sick leave."
In 2006 Ahmed Dogan stated bluntly: "They are pulling the wool over your eyes with those donations. Look, all over the world, each political party has, so to say, a circle of companies. If you think that I have less capability than a banker, then you have no real idea of the influence of a politician." Then he went on to add that he already knew the companies from his circle that would acquire EU funding in 2008 and 2009.
Does the West believe in the increased penalties for vote buying in the Penal Code? Yes, at first glance. "We welcome the decision by the National Assembly to pass legislation increasing the penalties for vote buying. This action makes it clear that vote buying is a serious crime," said American Ambassador to Bulgaria Nancy McEldowney in a special statement. But, in her view, there are a lot more steps to be taken. "Passage of an even more robust legislative package would have further strengthened the elections process. We encourage all political parties to voluntarily implement the additional measures proposed by the Integrity Pact for Independent and Democratic Vote in Bulgaria, especially the provisions for enhanced transparency of political party financing. If adopted, these measures will boost confidence in the electoral system and serve the best interests of Bulgaria's citizens and democratic institutions."