The presidential and early parliamentary elections held in Bulgaria on 14 November were competitive and fundamental freedoms were respected. However, public interest and trust in the electoral process is undermined by the long-standing issue of vote-buying and also by the failure of the political process to produce a government, concluded a delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
The 19-member delegation, led by Alfred Heer (Switzerland, ALDE), met with leaders and representatives of political parties and coalitions, members of the ODIHR Election Assessment Mission, the Chairperson and members of the Central Election Commission, and representatives of NGOs and the media, before observing the ballot on 14 November.
The delegation was aware of the challenges posed by the organisation of a third poll in a single year, after the elections of 4 April and 11 July – which PACE also observed – especially during a period when the Covid pandemic is having such a strong impact on Bulgarian society.
It heard from its interlocutors about the persistence of long-standing issues affecting electoral processes in Bulgaria such as, for example, the widespread problem of vote control and vote-buying (in particular in economically fragile communities such as the Roma), together with the practical difficulties of effectively combating this practice. The use of machine voting might have reduced the opportunities for vote-buying. The delegation understood that the unusually extensive use of mobile box voting during the recent elections, mostly in these communities, was considered by some as a means to further facilitate vote control and buying.
The PACE delegation welcomed the fact that the Ministry of the Interior, over the last few months, began a campaign of action in this area. The existing legal provisions concerning vote-buying should obviously be seen to be enforced. However, some interlocutors of the PACE delegation did question whether political interests were behind this action.
The delegation was also informed about issues linked to the machine-voting system which, according to some interlocutors, limit the participation of voters who are not familiar with modern technologies. It noted that the mysterious discovery of hundreds of such machines on several government-owned premises, only days before election day, together with the unconvincing explanations offered by the authorities, raised serious questions about the possibility of electoral fraud.
On election day, the PACE delegation split into 11 teams which observed the vote in Sofia and its surroundings, as well as in the regions of Batak, Blagoevgrad, Dubnitsa, Karlovo, Kustendil, Mezdra, Pazardzhik, Pernik, Plovdiv, Pravets, Samokov, Slivnitsa and Velingrad. In the polling stations observed, members of the polling station commissions were co-operative and the voting was calm, transparent and well organised; however, some technical problems with the functioning of the voting machines were observed and some organisational shortcomings. Some people had difficulties in using the voting machines. The design of the process on the screen led to some voters excluding themselves from one of the two elections.
The PACE delegation wishes to thank the Bulgarian authorities for the support received in organising the mission and assures them that PACE and the Venice Commission will continue to co-operate to bring further improvements to Bulgaria’s electoral legislation and practices.
A report on the observation of the 14 November elections will be presented to the plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, meeting in Strasbourg, in January 2022.