PROHIBITION RETURNS TO BG

by Anthony Georgieff

During the past 25 years since Bulgarians were given the right to vote in elections with more than one party standing the basic process of democracy has at least wavered.

Election rules and regulations change each time citizens are supposed to go the ballots, invariably to suit the preferences of whoever happens to be in power. "Buying" of votes – meaning giving cash to people to cast their vote for a particular political party – proliferates. Election fraud is rife. No one is brought to justice over alleged wrongdoing. To put it in another way, things go wrong oftener than they go right – which partly explains why Bulgarians typically vote with their feet: less than half of those eligible to vote actually do vote in national elections.

One novelty introduced by the Central Elections Commission ahead of the 2014 European Parliament elections is a piece of software enabling citizens to check whether their personal data, such as their Civil Registration Number, has been misused by a political party. Within a few days hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians logged on and typed in their EGNs. Many of them discovered that their data has been used to manifest support for a particular political party standing in the elections – without themselves knowing anything at all.

In what has become a typical post-Communist way of doing things in Bulgaria, the authorities went for the messenger rather than for the message. Instead of investigating and punishing those political parties that fraudulently used signatures to register for the elections, the Data Protection Commission castigated the Central Elections Commission and demanded changes to be made to the way the software operated – to enable citizens to gain better protection for their EGNs. Critics of the innovation claimed it violated the Elections Code which mandates a secret ballot. They said unscrupulous employers, for example, could type in the EGNs of their staff and see who declared support for what political party. Nonsense, supporters of the new device retorted. When people sign under party documents they mean to have their names publicly displayed to show their political preference.

Though the Bulgarian election system as it is at the moment has few similarities to the Communist times, some elements of the Zhivkov era have remained untouched and unchanged. One is the government imposed... prohibition of alcoholic drinks ahead of and on election day.

This is not a joke. In 2014 the Bulgarian government will not allow its citizens (or visitors of this new EU member state) to have a drink, possibly for fear one too many would impair their abilities to make an informed decision at the ballot box. So, off-license shops will be closed, supermarkets will not sell drinks, restaurants will only serve water and Schweppes on 24 and 25 May. The election itself is scheduled for 25 May, but the preceding day in Bulgaria is officially declared "Day for Thought" – so no drinks, either.

Some of the most affected are thousands of Bulgarian high school graduates who typically have their prom parties around 24 May, the Cyril and Methodius Day of the Bulgarian Alphabet.

But do not despair. If you happen to be in dire need of a drink, perhaps owing to your inability to make a common sense distinction between the BSP and GERB, remember you are in Bulgaria. Rules and regulations are designed to be broken, rather than strictly adhered to. As has turned out to be the case with the smoking ban, many establishments will flout the prohibition and will serve you a rakiya, perhaps camouflaged as coffee in a paper cup.

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