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Statement by the PACE pre-electoral delegation ahead of the parliamentary elections in Bulgaria

A pre-electoral delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) visited Sofia to assess the election campaign and the state of preparations for the parliamentary elections to be held on 4 April 2021.

The PACE pre-electoral delegation recalls that the Assembly has observed all parliamentary and presidential elections in Bulgaria since 1990.

With regard to the electoral legal framework, the Assembly’s pre-electoral delegation noted that in 2020 Bulgaria had adopted changes to the Electoral Code introducing a combination of machine and paper-ballot voting in polling stations with more than 300 voters, and had simplified the reconciliation of results protocols by excluding the number of unused ballots from them. While the introduction of new technologies in the electoral process could be considered as a positive development, nevertheless it should be accompanied by measures increasing transparency and also involving independent experts in order to reinforce public confidence in the process.

The Central Election Commission informed the delegation that the registration of parties and candidates was inclusive, with 22 political parties and 8 coalitions registered. The number of voters is estimated at some 6.7 million. There was general confidence in the integrity of voter registration. Several interlocutors expressed concern about the arbitrary number of polling stations established in some foreign countries, without taking into consideration the real number of Bulgarian citizens abroad.

The election campaign started on 5 March. Political parties and candidates are able to to campaign freely, with no major restrictions. The election campaign is mainly focused on issues of corruption, unemployment, the pandemic situation, and social problems. Contestants are mainly campaigning using online and social media tools due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The delegation was informed by different interlocutors about a number of long-standing concerns which still remain unaddressed, in particular cases of hate speech, allegations of vote-buying and “organised” voting in socially vulnerable communities, particularly impacting Roma.

In this regard, the pre-electoral delegation recalls that in its election observation report on the 2017 early parliamentary elections in Bulgaria, the Assembly highlighted the same concerns, namely allegations of vote-buying and “organised” voting, in particular among vulnerable groups. The Assembly’s delegation condemns such practices and asks the relevant authorities to take all necessary measures to exclude them from electoral practice.

The funding of political parties, coalitions and candidates is based on public funds, as well as on the financial resources of contestants. In 2019, public funding to political parties was reduced and the donation ceiling was removed. Some interlocutors of the PACE pre-electoral delegation noted that the significant amount of public funds available to the parties during the election campaign could contribute to an unlevel playing field between contestants.

In this regard, the delegation recalls that during the last election observation mission the Assembly pointed out that public funding for political parties was very generous compared with the salaries and pensions funded from the national budget. In addition, there is a low level

of confidence in the transparency of party and campaign funding and the effectiveness of its oversight.

The media environment is diverse, with many outlets, but it is divided along political lines and is influenced by commercial and corporate interests. Television is the main source of information. By law, only the public service broadcasters are required to cover elections in accordance with the principles of equitability and objectivity and allocate free airtime to each contestant.

The PACE pre-electoral delegation recalls the report of the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights published in October 2020 which highlighted the “continuous deterioration of media freedom as a consequence of a series of aggregate factors, including non-transparent media ownership and financing, harassment of journalists, the use of defamation suits and political influence”. Therefore, the PACE delegation asks relevant stakeholders to guarantee equal and fair media coverage of the election campaign to all contestants.

The delegation is aware that it is a real challenge for the election administration to organise elections during the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular to recruit sufficient experienced staff to fill positions on lower commissions. In addition, for the first time, voters can vote via voting machines and the Central Election Commission (CEC) was responsible for the provision of the technical equipment. The delegation was informed by the CEC that the technical aspects of the elections were well prepared, including the procedure for voting for people who will be in quarantine on election day. The delegation highlighted the importance of organising training for members of polling stations on new counting procedures to avoid human error.

Some recurrent problems, unfortunately, remain still unaddressed. Moreover, the forthcoming elections will be held during the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, the delegation calls on the relevant authorities to take the necessary steps to ensure the right of citizens to free elections according to the international commitments of the Republic of Bulgaria.

The delegation held meetings with the leaders or the representatives of the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary political parties participating in the elections, the Chairperson and members of the Central Election Commission, and the OSCE/ODIHR limited election observation mission.

The Parliamentary Assembly will send a 20-member delegation to observe the Parliamentary elections on 4 April 2021.

Members of the delegation:

Alfred Heer (Switzerland, ALDE), Head of the delegation

Aleksander Stokkebø, (Norway, EPP/CD)

Alberto Ribolla (Italy, EC/DA)

Aleksander Pociej (Poland, EPP/CD), monitoring co-rapporteur (ex officio)