Bulgaria’s 2 April early parliamentary elections were competitive and well-managed but, while the legal framework is adequate for holding democratic elections, frequent changes erode trust, undercut efficiency and create challenges to making timely preparations, international observers said in a statement today.
In particular, controversial amendments that reduced the use of voting machines reignited concerns about the secrecy and integrity of the ballot and undue influence on voters in socially vulnerable communities, the statement says.
“By casting their vote for the fifth time in two years, Bulgaria’s citizens have, despite electoral fatigue, expressed their political will”, said Andrej Hunko, Head of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. “They now expect their elected representatives to find the necessary political compromises to form a government and address people's needs. This would be a first step towards re-establishing trust in political institutions and society, at all levels, which is essential in a democratic society.”
The numerous contestants were able to campaign freely and fundamental freedoms were respected, although the fact that five parliamentary elections had been held over such a short time contributed to voter fatigue. Despite diverse and extensive coverage by the media that presented voters with a plurality of views, media remained vulnerable to political and corporate influences that reduced critical reporting, the observers said.
“The free campaign and respect for fundamental freedoms generally provided voters with the ability to make their political choice, but previous recommendations related to the media, including to decriminalize defamation and stronger guarantees for journalists’ independence, remain unaddressed,” said Tana de Zulueta, Head of the election observation mission from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. “The frequent and, in particular, late changes to the laws, regulations and procedures created concerns and uncertainty that appear to have led to the difficulties we saw on election day, particularly when it came to ensuring the secrecy of voters’ ballots.”
The campaign was moderate, with considerable presence on social media, and generally perceived as the continuation of almost two years of campaigning. Along with the allegations of vote-buying and controlled voting, instances of mayors’ involvement in the campaign negatively affected the level playing field and voters’ ability to cast their ballot freely. With some notable exceptions, the visibility of female candidates remained low. Election day was orderly, and the observers generally assessed the process positively, although they noted inadequate protection of the secrecy of the vote.
December 2022 amendments to the Election Code re-introduced the option of casting a paper ballot, reducing the role of touchscreen voting machines to the printing of “machine ballots”, to be cast and counted in the same manner as paper ballots. This change, along with the introduction of video monitoring of vote counting, did not enjoy broad political consensus and was adopted with little consultation among stakeholders. Representatives of government institutions, political parties and civil society organizations voiced criticism of these late changes, including their potential negative impact on the voting process.
Many prior recommendations by the international observers remain unaddressed, including those related to the blanket disenfranchisement of prisoners and persons under guardianship, the barring of those with dual citizenship from participating as candidates, the lack of measures to promote the participation of women and minorities, including in party platforms, and the limited possibility to challenge election results.
The diverse media environment operates in a constrained advertising market, and challenges to their viability expose media outlets to political and financial influence, which may result in self-censorship and a resulting lack of critical coverage. Defamation remains a criminal offence and, coupled with disproportionate fines, has potentially negative effects on investigative reporting on issues of public interest. The election campaign had an extensive presence on the public broadcasters, who granted direct access to all political competitors. Nevertheless, strict rules on the equal participation of contestants on these broadcasters reduced editorial content and their journalistic role, and they were used by political parties as vehicles to disseminate their electoral messages. With a greater degree of editorial freedom, private media provided more diverse coverage, although this was mainly broadcast outside of prime time. Women candidates were underrepresented in televised debates, reflecting gender inequality in political life.