2021 Bulgarian General Elections: How an EU member managed to exercise voter suppression legally

Merkel calling out Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov for wearing mask wrong

With the COVID pandemic wreaking chaos across nation-states’ healthcare systems, there are those who lose, and those who lose even more. The free markets of the West are struggling to find the new economic equilibrium with everchanging anti-covid regulation. Political uncertainty is slowing progress in international cooperation and economic recovery in terms of rising sanctions and international trade disruptions fueled by the growing US-China Tensions.

At the midpoint of increasing polarization in global affairs is the European Union. The block faces great challenges with its inability to establish a firm and united foreign policy in times of derailed international diplomacy well marked in the 4 years of the previous Trump administration. The Union’s loose grip on the internal affairs of struggling member states, tensions with regional neighboring powers such as Turkey, and the conflict in Ukraine all represent challenges for Brussel’s political and economic union. The opposing force of western democracy has always found a way to disrupt coordinated US-EU policy through the EU’s weak links. That of the poorest and most corrupt member state of Bulgaria. In this article, we shall note the numerous examples of Bulgaria’s failure to battle domestic corruption and foreign interference in the last hours of the current Borissov administration.

How bad is COVID-19 in Bulgaria?

According to a study conducted by John Hopkins University, Bulgaria is 1st in the EU and 2nd globally in terms of observed case-fatality ratio. Despite record-breaking cases, the lowest vaccination tempo amongst the EU, and signals by hospitals refusing to accept patients with covid like symptoms, Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov has lifted all pandemic restrictions. Borisov has been leading his government by avoiding all media interactions ever since the recent leak of what appeared to be the prime minister sleeping in his bedroom with a gun on the nightstand and a drawer full of cash and gold. This has propelled the government to initiate a total mainstream media blackout when it comes to voicing political criticism on the pandemic handling and the seemingly endless corruption allegations.

Domestic Voter Suppression 

On April 1st, Bulgaria registered a total of 139 000 citizens either quarantined or actively registered covid patients. The majority of citizens in the statistic above will lose their right to vote if they don’t start the dull process of registering for a mobile voting ballot. The registration end date has been set to the 31st of March which is 4 days before the election. Due to the registration deadline predating the Elections, quarantined and covid invected citizens will automatically be stripped of their voting rights.   

Evidence of lack of political will has been the parliament’s refusal to pass legislation reforms guaranteeing the right to vote online or by mail. The Bulgarian Central Election Commission recently passed a controversial protocol banning volunteer polling workers to video-record the vote-counting, which was protested by opposition forces. All recordings were ruled temporarily unlawful by the High Administrative Court just a day before the elections. The final verdict is to be conveniently ruled 14 days after the election. The Central Election Commission (CES) also managed to withstand petitions motioning for a shorter vote-counting period which is with a current set deadline of 4 days post-election, raising further concern over possible voter suppression. 

Voter Suppression Abroad

The Central Election Commission of Bulgaria managed to pass a protocol that restricts exit polls volunteer workers from participation in the United States and the UK. This way, the Election Commission has managed to eliminate almost all involvement of the local Bulgarian diaspora in the voting process overseas. Thanks to this administrative maneuver, the ruling parties forming the current majority in Parliament have sent their own exit poll workers from Bulgaria. The move has raised concerns as the selection process has been scrutinized for sending politically affiliated party members in exit poll abroad.

Bulgaria’s loss of International Support

Ongoing domestic corruption allegations and pricy mega projects absent of economic or geostrategic logic such as Russia’s Turkish Stream gas pipeline through Bulgaria have been sabotaging the acting administration’s international support. Official statements by the United States 2020 global Report on Human Rights Practices have condemned Bulgaria with “serious problems with judicial independence” and “serious restrictions on free expression, including media censorship, violence, and threats of violence against journalists”. 

The current government has also faced numerous criticisms on the European stage. Numerous EU partners have come out with official statements condemning Bulgaria’s ability to follow up with the EU’s common foreign policy with accusations of subordination towards Russian influence. Another breach of the EU’s policy was brought to light by a German intelligence report leaked to “Der Spiegel” stating that “PM Borissov helped Turkey in its persecution of opponents of Erdogan. Despite a European court of July 2016, deeming it illegal to hand over Turkish political asylum seekers fleeing Turkey, Bulgaria went against the block’s foreign policy and handed over several Turkish citizens with the coordinated support of PM Borissov expressed after an unofficial meeting with the Turkish president Erdogan. The turnout of events has led to filed notions by the Venetian Commission of Rule of Law which has been known to constantly throw verdicts at Bulgaria with accusations over corruption, rule of law, and human rights breaches.

Bulgaria managed to cause even more controversy on the international stage by going against its very own foreign policy objective for cooperation with neighboring North Macedonia set on the EU Balkan summit in 2020. The Bulgarian government stamped a permanent wound in the relations of the two by being the only EU member to veto the initiation of North Macedonia in the EU enlargement scheme due to disputes in the two countries’ shared historical past. This has negatively impacted relations with neighboring countries which are also affected by the veto.

The international backlash has also been present in recent light of events. The EU’s Chief Prosecutor, Laura Kovesi, rejected 9 out of 11 of the Bulgarian candidates that were nominated by Bulgaria’s Chief Prosecutor, Ivan Geshev, to serve in the new EU prosecutor’s office. 

Laura Kövesi and Lozan Panov [R] in Sofia, March 2017. [bTV]

The Chief Prosecution’s office has been seen as the main government instrument through which corruption circles enforce power and control over opposing individuals and businesses. The acting Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev brought protests to the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, as well as protests in almost every single European capital by citizens living abroad.

Borissov’s political survival

Bulgarian elections have established a tradition when it comes to controversy. The demographics of Bulgaria leave the administration’s influence of voting patterns relatively . With the easily manipulated segment of senior citizens, accompanied by the economically excluded Roma minority, voting fraud has been widespread. Through heavy regulation and lack of economic decentralization, the private sector has been heavily subordinated into casting so-called “corporate votes” in order to keep its passage for publically subsidized project spending. Not even taking into account the workers in the public sector which account for more than a quarter of the working population. By heavy interference in all spheres of society, the Bulgarian political establishment has tampered with the very driving factor of every western society, that of the economic incentives which closely correlate to one’s perception of civil liberty and responsibility.

It is no secret that Bulgaria’s governing party GERB performs best in low voter turnout elections. This tendency does not exclude the other major political party part of the status quo of Bulgarian politics: The Bulgarian Socialist Party which has been accused of being a sham opposition party. All efforts have been rather successful in terms of voter suppression but Borissov’s political future as a leader seems rather impossible. Forecasts project a very fragmented parliament with numerous new anti-establishment parties set to hold positions.

Despite sociologists predicting a bigger turnout among young voters, it is well known that the system of the Bulgarian establishment has techniques to make its political survival. Corruption circles have managed to secure control by developing a system in which businesses are free to produce only basic goods and services to preserve the desperate state of the Bulgarian consumer. The unprecedented high levels of government regulation of microeconomics make it even harder for Bulgarians to express rational political thought and civil duty on an empty and sick stomach.

Not even taking into account the workers in the public sector which account for more than a quarter of the working population. By heavy interference in all spheres of society, the Bulgarian political establishment has tampered with the very driving factor of every western society, that of the economic incentives which closely correlate to one’s perception of civil liberty and responsibility.

The current political establishment has had its corrupted economic interests bothered by the numerous international scandals, and domestic destabilization. The current administration leading officials have been permanently branded as unwanted and now corruption circles have to find a way to facilitate the accumulated public frustrations. In order for the symbiotic relationship between corruption and civil society to flourish, corrupt officials do not need unnecessary international attention or a frustrated public opinion on the domestic stage. Through the disposal of some of the more recognizable public figures, corrupt organizations may be able to imitate political change if done patiently. In this spirit, we may soon expect freshly rebranded old faces in the newly formed and portrayed as “anti-corruption” parties that are expected to take office. This is the only political maneuver that will bring down public tension in order to secure the status quo real old players in Bulgarian politics.

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Author: Zlatin Kurshumov, published in Chicago Illinois.

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