Thu, 10/27/2016 - 13:22

Intricacies of Bulgarian Election Code jeopardise presidential election

If Jung and Freud were to meet in Bulgaria and hold one of their notorious disputes, Jung would probably win: mythology would get the upper hand over analysis.

Notwithstanding the sometimes very complicated details of the daily twists and turns of Bulgarian politics under GERB, they can be summed up with what some Western commentators describe as Post-Truth Politics: a strongman leader at the top tells myths to his audiences and is then able to get away with it for a long, long time because voters are led by emotions rather than facts.

Here are some examples. Boyko Borisov likes to enchant his party members with blunt statements, sometimes bordering on the comical, and often made off-the-cuff. He claims the economy is doing well. The real-life fact is that the kind of crony capitalism that has flourished in this country under GERB has little to do with either the free market or with real economic development as is closely related to political nepotism and widespread corruption. He claims he is a reformist. In fact no significant and much-needed reform, for example in the administration of justice, has been implemented or even started. One possible exception is in health care where patients will now be fingerprinted on their admission to hospital (!) to make sure they have not cheated on their medical insurance payments. Borisov recently said he would stop being "tolerant" to his political foes (implying, Catch 22-like, that in the past he has been tolerant). The truth is that rarely since the fall of Communism has the nation been so divided as it is now and that the establishment uses at least questionable means to quash any political opposition and even criticism. Sadly, under GERB, Bulgaria's media freedoms have plummeted and Bulgaria is now rock-bottom in the EU. Borisov claims he has a long-term vision for Bulgaria's development. The fact is that most of his actions appear to be decided upon depending on what football match he has or has not won the day before, often hurling even his closest associates into ignominious disarray by changing his stance on important matters in a matter of hours if not minutes. Or, as one analyst put it, Borisov's policies is either handling real or imaginary crises, in an ostensibly efficient manner, or just political PR of the ribbon-cutting sort. One of the aspects of Borisov that made him palatable to the West has been his occasional statements that favoured the West over Russia. Even that hardly has any truth in it, especially given his reluctance to participate fully in NATO's Black Sea operations and his increasingly pro-Putin stance in the economy.

For the past year or so, Borisov has claimed that he stands for stability, and that has become one of his mantras. Again, the fact is that his government is quite fragile. Any withdrawal of the extreme nationalists, who are his associates and who dictate most of his agendas especially regarding Turkey, Russia and immigration, will lead to a political collapse.

Still, the prime minister proclaimed during a recent visit to Brussels: "I am the greatest democrat!" Perhaps that is the ultimate triumph of post-truth politics in GERB's Bulgaria.

It is against this background that several million citizens will go to the ballots on 6 November to elect their fifth post-Communist president.

To start off with, the position and powers of the Bulgarian president are rather unusual. When the founding fathers of Bulgaria's post-Communist transition hammered out the country's first democratic Constitution, in 1991, they left the newly-invented office of president in a somewhat curious state. On the one hand, the Bulgarian president is elected on a first-past-the-post basis, meaning he or she is installed in office by a simple majority of voters. In other countries with a similar system, famously France, a president thus elected commands the show as he or she has very real powers in running the state including its foreign policy. However, the Bulgarian lawmakers back at the dawn of democracy overlooked that, perhaps for fear of concentrating too much powers in one man (or woman), and therefore limited the powers of the president largely to the ceremonial – much like in Germany (where the president is not elected in a first-past-the-post ballot). The president can veto legislation, but his or her veto is easy to overturn in parliament. He or she also has the ultimately (and entirely formal) power to command the armed forces. Perhaps the most palpable power of the Bulgarian president is to set up caretaker governments at times of government crises – not uncommon at all in Bulgaria's post-1989 history.

So, if the Bulgarian president is largely a figurehead, is this election important at all? No – because the president is incapable of initiating any real reform, and depending on the realistic outcome of the election will be unlikely to even try. And yes, because Bulgarians need to see someone they can at least have a moral trust in. Bulgaria's international partners will expect to see a reputable man or woman, who speaks at least one foreign language, and is able to appear good on TV when meeting with foreign dignitaries. Ultimately, it is important because it will indicate the direction of the political winds after so many years of GERB rule.
Boyko Borisov has already threatened to resign unless his candidate wins outright, which is utterly unrealistic if opinion polls are anything to go by – most of them indicate a neck-and-neck race between GERB's candidate and that of their chief opponent, the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party.

The Bulgarian presidential election is marred with yet another issue, possibly a technicality, but a very important technicality. In keeping with the Bulgarian Constitution, every Bulgarian citizen regardless of their place of abode on election day is entitled to vote. As postal voting has not been implemented in this country, the Bulgarian consuls abroad usually set up ballot boxes to enable Bulgarian expats to exercise their voting rights. In early summer, the GERB-dominated parliament made several significant amendments to the Election Code. One of them made voting compulsory (with the "punishment" being that if you don't cast your ballot in two consecutive elections you will be taken out of the lists of registered voters altogether). Another limited the number of polling stations abroad to 35 per country. This was done exclusively with Turkey in mind, owing to the large number of Bulgarians with voting rights living there and their obvious support for the Turkish-dominated DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Yet another introduced a new option on the ballot papers themselves: "I do not support any of the candidates." Previously, if a citizen voluntarily invalidated his or her ballot because they felt disgusted with the people they were given to vote for, that ballot would still count and be distributed to the largest parties to have won the election. The new I-Do-Not-Vote-For-Anyone box would have counted as valid, raising the voters' turnout, but not giving anyone an actual vote.

As late as three weeks before voting day, Bulgaria's political scientists, philosophers and analysts looked at the new Election Code again and suddenly realised that limiting the number of polling stations abroad to 35 per country would not only affect Turkey, obviously, but also the United States (where there are at least 100,000 Bulgarians) and, significantly, the UK (where there are about half a million). Significantly, they also realised that the I-Do-Not-Vote-For-Anyone box would so much benefit the largest party in parliament because it would increase the nominal voter turnout, in Bulgaria's instance GERB, that its presidential candidate may be able to win outright.

Trouble was that the lawmakers had just decided to take a one-month holiday ahead of the election, and thus there was no parliament to make more sensible amendments.

Sensing that the Election Code as it had been passed in early summer might successfully be challenged in the Constitutional Court and thus invalidate the presidential election, Boyko Borisov stepped in and terminated the MPs' holidays. Parliament did meet and passed a few amendments to the previous amendments. Significantly, it did raise the number of polling stations abroad to over 35, but only in countries belonging to the EU.

How this conforms with the Constitution will probably be a matter for the Constitutional Court after the election.

On election night back in 2011, when it emerged that President Rosen Plevneliev had garnered enough votes to take up the position, his then boss, Boyko Borisov, explained in his inimitable fashion: "Whoever I had put forward would have become president." At that time the main question commentators and analysts in this country were asking themselves was to what extent Plevneliev would be able to emancipate himself from his former boss and his party. In 2016, if Tsetska Tsacheva, Borisov's handpicked presidential candidate, wins, that question will not stand at all. Jung will have definitely got the upper hand over Freud.

Issue 121

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