21 Apr. — The National Assembly of Bulgaria adopted at second reading amendments to the current Electoral Code. According to these amendments, voters will be obliged to participate in elections. 109 out of 240 deputies supported the decision while 74 voted against it and ten abstained.
Over the past several years, voters in Bulgaria have become increasingly disillusioned with their political process. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, turnout was 51% — the lowest rate since the country exited the Soviet bloc. As a consequence of this low turnout, ruling coalitions are weak: since 2012, there have been five governments.
The amendments to the Electoral Code regarding compulsory voting, initiated by the nationalist Patriotic Front back in 2014, are part of efforts being made by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s cabinet to remedy the situation. In January 2016, parliament approved a government bill on electronic voting designed to, according to the authors’ idea, help Bulgarians living overseas to participate in elections as well as encourage youth involvement. However, the majority of the proposals must still make it through the voting procedure.
The debates in parliament lasted almost three hours. In the end, the initiative was passed by the votes of members of the ruling coalition (the centre-right party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria [GERB], and the Patriotic Front) and the opposition centre-left Alternatives for Bulgarian Revival (ABV). In addition, two deputies from the Reformist Bloc (RB) and seven from the Bulgarian Democratic Centre voted to make participation in elections mandatory.
The majority of representatives of opposition parties, including the entire Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and pro-Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) factions, voted against the amendments.
In the opinion of the opposition, the government’s action is unconstitutional. MRF deputy Chetin Kazak stated in comments to the publication Trud that the movement will begin collecting signatures to appeal to the Constitutional Court immediately after official publication. The BSP is considering taking analogous action. In addition, opponents of the initiative intend to boycott further changes to the Electoral Code in parliament.
They are also unhappy with the amendments in the RB, GERB’s partner in the coalition. “Compulsory voting will create a Frankenstein you’ll later want to get rid of quickly,” said RB co-chairman Nayden Zelenogorski. However, the party will not leave the coalition because of differences.
Bulgarian experts are also criticising the parliament’s decision as anti-constitutional and opposed to democratic values. Political scientist Hristo Panchugov, for instance, is certain that the amendments will be appealed in court.
On the very same day, the ruling coalition rejected two other proposals previously approved by the legal affairs committee (on the creation of a single electoral district abroad and on holding elections and referendums in the same day). “Parties against citizens – 3:0,” the publication Sega mockingly reported. However, the deputies have only considered 6 out of 88 points so far. No less urgent questions (for example, regarding the scratch vote, reducing the campaign period and banning the publication of polling data) will be put to a vote in the upcoming days.
Besides appealing to the Constitutional Court, there are two options left open to those who oppose the amendments: presidential veto and public support in a referendum that will be held this summer.