site.btaInternational Observers: Fundamental Freedoms Generally Respected in Bulgaria's Sunday Elections
Observers of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) found the October 2 snap general elections in Bulgaria to be competitive and said that fundamental freedoms were generally respected, but noted that allegations of vote-buying and pressure on voters negatively affected parts of the process. The observers made a statement in Sofia Monday to share their observations. Final reports of their missions are yet to be released.
“It appears that political compromise is needed to ensure long-term stability in Bulgaria,” said Thorhildur Sunna Aevarsdottir, Alternate Head of the PACE delegation. “After the low turnout we saw yesterday, it is clearly now the responsibility of the newly elected parliamentarians to do their utmost to regain the electorate’s trust.”
Nina Suomalainen, Head of the election observation mission from ODIHR said that while many aspects of the election were conducted smoothly, it is clear that improvements are needed to the election-related legislation and procedures. “ODIHR will provide recommendations in its final report on these elections, and we hope these will aid the government in introducing the needed improvements,” she said.
Here are some of the key findings of the observers based on their statements:
The elections were organized adequately. Election day was generally calm, and voting proceeded smoothly.
Contestants were able to campaign freely in elections that took place amid voter fatigue from the holding of three early parliamentary elections in less than two years.
The campaign was competitive, with a range of contestants representing different views. The campaign was, however, often negative in tone and marked by mutual accusations among the parties of corruption or wrongdoing.
The accuracy of the voter list for the elections was diminished by the exclusion of undocumented residents, and Roma in particular, and that limited reporting and oversight reduced the transparency of campaign finances.
Repeated allegations of vote-buying, pressure on public and private sector employees and voters’ dependence on local employers in economically vulnerable communities raised concerns about voters’ ability to make their choice free of fear of retribution.
The legal framework for elections does not sufficiently address campaigning by high-level public officials, and such instances raised concerns over the misuse of public resources and ensuring a level playing field.
The campaign got substantial coverage in the mainstream media, but inadequate journalistic scrutiny of the candidates' policies and of their records in office limited voters’ access to comprehensive information.
The media environment is vibrant, and freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed. The concentration of media ownership and close ties between some media and political parties reduce pluralism and decrease public trust in journalists’ work. Recent cases of protracted civil and criminal litigation against independent investigative media highlight journalists’ vulnerability to pressure through the courts and prompt self-censorship.
Prime-time newscasts focused on the caretaker government and the president, whose critical statements often disadvantaged parties they blamed for current socioeconomic problems.
While many of those with whom the observers spoke expressed trust in the use of voting machines, citing the positive effect on the accuracy of the vote count and reduced opportunities for malfeasance, some noted that their use might dissuade some elderly voters or those who distrust the technology from voting. The voting machines were not equipped with accessibility functions to enable voters with certain disabilities to vote independently. Moreover, the law does not address possible instances of discrepancies between the machine and manual count.
The legal framework provides an overall adequate basis for the conduct of democratic elections but contains provisions inconsistent with a number of international standards, and ambiguous provisions and shortcomings that adversely affected several aspects of the electoral process. Several longstanding concerns remain to be addressed, including those related to passive and active suffrage rights, the prohibition against campaigning in languages other than Bulgarian, and limitations on the opportunity to challenge election results.
Women were underrepresented as candidates and in the campaign and greater commitment is needed to ensuring their adequate participation. Most political parties did not include any policies for the promotion of women in their platforms. Some 30 per cent of candidates were women, and of the 867 candidate lists registered, only 208 were led by women.
Issues related to minorities rarely featured in the campaign, and most political parties and coalitions did not include policies for persons belonging to minorities or for Roma integration in their electoral platforms. There were several instances of inflammatory rhetoric against Roma and other ethnic communities. The observers were told that Roma voters are still vulnerable to intimidation and attempted vote-buying.