The discussion on direct democracy has become very fashionable in society and among politicians already since the referendum on the construction of a new nuclear power plant in January 2013. Because the turnout of this referendum – which had been the first national referendum after the political changes in 1989 - had not met the required 60 per cent threshold, it was declared invalid. Policy makers and experts speculated why this national referendum had failed and some people thought that the question of the referendum had been too unclear or inappropriate (Source). Nevertheless, after this first unsuccessful referendum a true wave of direct democracy swept social and political life. Several citizens’ initiatives for referenda were stared, mostly concerned with the system of political parties. However, due to a lack of signatures these initiatives were unsuccessful as well. Simultaneously, there had also been a number of local plebiscite initiatives but they equally failed as a result of a too high turnout quorum. The conclusion out of these unsuccessful initiatives was clear: the referendum law was not perfect and had to be revised as the turnout and approval quorums were too high.
Direct democracy instruments are still not designed in a way that they serve Bulgarian civil society. Indeed, in order to launch a referendum it is still necessary to collect 500,000 signatures within a three months timeframe. Moreover, the participation turnout has to be as high or higher than the participation of the preceding national parliamentary elections (Source). Due to the high turnout and approval quorums it is almost impossible to initiative a referendum without the help of one of the big political parties. As a result, Bulgarian politicians tend to use direct democracy in their political battles for popularity, party consolidation and media presence.
The current Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev stressed the issue of direct democracy again on 14 March 2014 in the National Assembly after consultations with the main political parties to run for the European elections in May 2014. In his speech he underlined that Bulgaria was in need of a functioning referendum law. He emphasised that direct democracy always made sense regardless of the results of a referendum. This was due to the fact that through direct democracy, citizens would feel included in the political decisions and that their voices would be heard. Moreover, Plevneliev argued that through direct democracy trust in the political system would increase (Source). This is indeed a pressing problem in Bulgaria as public trust in the parliament only lies at 10 per cent (Source). Therefore, the President has proposed a referendum himself, which would deal with Bulgaria’s current electoral system and which should be held on 25 May 2014 – the same day as the European elections. In this referendum it would be asked if (1) certain electoral candidates should be elected directly or from party lists, if (2) voting should become obligatory and if (3) electronic voting should be introduced. According to Pleveneliev, this referendum would “help to stabilize the institutions and increase public trust”. Furthermore, “compulsory voting would boost the legitimacy of results, fight voter apathy and decrease the effects of possible vote buying” (Source). The plebiscite on the President’s proposal to hold a referendum had received 560,000 signatures in only a month and has been handed over to the Bulgarian parliament.
However, Pleveneliev’s referendum proposal was turned into political battle as other referenda in Bulgaria had been before. Immediately after the President had voiced his idea of a referendum, it was attacked by three of the four main parties. The only party supporting the referendum was GERB, the party which had nominated Plevenliev as candidate for President. The leaders of both ruling coalition parties – the former communist and left-wing BSP as well as the liberal DSP – argued that the President’s proposal aimed to suspend the project of a new Electoral Codex (not containing direct, compulsory or direct voting) whose development was dominated by members of the ruling coalition (Source). Moreover, they voiced the fear that electronic voting would be subject to manipulation. To hold the referendum on the same day as the EU election was also highly criticized. The left-wing BSP saw this as an attempt of GERB to consolidate its own power. GERB, however, has denied this accusation claiming that it would be cheaper to have both votes on the same day. In the meantime, however, it was decided that the referendum would not be held on the 25 May 2014 but at a later stage.
This discussion on the referendum regarding Bulgaria’s electoral law is symptomatic. It becomes clear that yet again the proposal by the Bulgarian President to hold a referendum on the electoral system has been part of a political game and it is very questionable if his intentions are truly meant to give the citizens a voice or to consolidate his own political standing. As Daniela Bozhinova, a Bulgarian direct democracy researcher and board member of Democracy International has pointed out, in Bulgaria “the existing voter-unfriendly mechanisms for direct decision-making serve nobody but the entrenched actors of the representative system” (Source).
Therefore, the question arises how direct democracy can be turned back to the Bulgarian people avoiding that only the political elite is able to initiate referenda. Although all political parties have supported the President’s demand to revise the referendum law, it is questionable if this demand will be followed by concrete actions.
Text by Ivailo Georgiev, edited by Lisa Albers
Ivailo Georgiev is a member of Democracy International. He lives and works in Sofia.
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Photo above the text and on front page by Julian Nitzsche (Source here)
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