The Bulgarian Presidential Election: A Kafkaesque Scenario

The Bulgarian Presidential Election: A Kafkaesque Scenario

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Bulgarians worldwide have been called to vote in the national presidential election. For hundreds of Bulgarians in Brussels this turned into a Kafkaesque experience.

Last Sunday, 6 November, thousands of Bulgarians in Brussels tried to exercise their constitutional right and mandatory civic duty, and cast their vote in the national presidential election. For hundreds of them this turned into a Kafkaesque experience as recent changes in the Election Code (adopted in May 2016) that introduced new procedures for voters abroad, together with the lack of a broad information campaign, prevented them from voting.

According to the Election Code, the opening of an additional voting section abroad can be initiated by either a demand from the respective ambassador or based on a number of collected electronic demands by citizens, expressing their intention to vote. However, within the newly-introduced provisions, in particular Article 15 [1], the number of citizen demands had been increased to 500, which is far higher compared to the requirements inside the country and the previous requirements envisaged in the Election Code.

On the other hand, the provisions of the same Election Code stipulate that the Bulgarians living abroad are not obliged to file a preliminary demand ahead of elections. They can simply present themselves on the Election Day at the respective voting section and vote after filling in a declaration on the spot [2]. This already suggests that there should be more voting stations than preliminary voting demanded.

Furthermore, once voting had become mandatory for Bulgarian citizens, the national authorities, in particular the Central Election Commission (CEC) should have envisaged a higher electoral turnout both in Bulgaria and abroad. This presumes an increase instead of a decrease in the number of polling stations inside and outside the country. This measure should have been reflected, especially with view to the option for citizens to participate in two votes at the same time: one for the presidential election and a second one for a national referendum (unlike previous elections where only one voting took place at a time).    

Last Sunday I performed the task of a citizen observer of the election process in the section at the Permanent Representation of the Republic of Bulgaria in Brussels. Members of the Section Election Commission (SEC) had signalled that based on their experience with previous elections (when voting had not been mandatory) the approximate voter turnout for Brussels had been 2-3.000 voters, which would correspond to opening three to four voting stations, given that only one voting takes place.

However, despite the preconditions for an increased voter turnout abroad, only two voting sections opened in Brussels, which allowed about 1.400 (around 900 at the Permanent Representation and 500 at the Embassy) citizens to cast their votes.

The CEC was informed about the average voter turnout in Brussels. Despite the signals from citizens, observers and even the SEC, expressing concerns over the lack of capacity of the local polling station to accommodate all voters, the CEC did not provide any response within the normative timeframe (one hour following the request, maximum by the end of the Election Day). About an hour before the end of the Election Day, the SEC received just an automatic reminder that Election Day would be concluded at 21h00 irrespective of the circumstances [3].  

In this context, the members of the local electoral commission who had the good will to proceed accepting citizens even after the normative deadline (having worked for 14 hours without any break and having performed their job with utmost diligence), they were blocked by CEC. Had they continued working and thus extended the electoral day without the formal approval of CEC, they would have committed a major violation of the Election Code for which they could have been held accountable.

Paradoxically, by refusing to accept voters who had arrived within the normatively prescribed time (by 20h00 local time) the SEC committed a violation of its own: one of civil and constitutional rights. Some citizens had been refused their right to vote even though they had presented themselves timely at the Permanent Representation. However, they were not allowed to the polling station due to time constraints and the lack of capacity of the Section Election Commission to handle all waiting citizens.

Furthermore, a stipulation in the Election Code envisages that the Identity Cards (ID) of all citizens who arrive within the voting hours, but have not been able to vote, shall be collected and processed. Another article of the same Code stipulates that the entire voting day shall be concluded by 21h00, without clarifying what will happen to voters whose ID cards have been collected but who have not been able to cast their vote [4].  

This led to a contradictory situation where citizens had arrived on time, but the SEC did not have the capacity to process their ID cards within the deadline. Therefore, the SEC returned dozens of citizens who had the right to vote, thus violating their civic rights [5].
Another Election Code violation was the refusal by the SEC to provide a written declaration to the above-mentioned citizens, serving as a proof that they had been present at Election Day within the designated time. By refusing to do so, the SEC also deprived citizens from a legal proof of their presence at the electoral day [6].  

Sadly, the election disaster in Brussels was not an isolated case. There have been complaints from SEC sections from many countries, reporting similar violations. In addition, hampering citizens to vote at this election will not have just a one-off impact: because of the newly introduced compulsory character of voting, Bulgarian citizens will lose their voting rights if they fail to vote at two consecutive elections of the same kind (e.g. presidential elections).  

Confronting potential voters with a Kafkaesque scenario and the absurdity of a ‘Catch 22’, the Bulgarian authorities have failed to respect the constitutional and civil rights of their citizens by hampering hundreds of them (who had been waiting for an average of 3-4 hours) from casting their vote.
 
A purposeful act or a negligent error, the actual changes in the Electoral Code and the reported violations have certainly breached the democratic principle of participation.

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[1] Establishment of New Sections: Article 15. ‘’Where the number of voters referred to in Article 14 herein exceeds 500, there shall be established as many voting sections as the times the number 500 is contained in the number of voters. If there is a remainder, an additional voting section may be established. Procedure for Submitting Applications for Establishment of Voting Sections Abroad’’, Election Code, Republic of Bulgaria, https://www.cik.bg/bg/8, Election Code, pdf file ENG, page 6

[2] Article 33, (2) (Amended and supplemented, SG No. 39/2016, effective 26.05.2016) Any voter, who has not been entered on the roll under Article 31 (1) herein but has the right to vote, shall be added to the roll by the section election commission upon presentation of an identity document and of a declaration completed in a standard form to the effect that he or she satisfies the conditions to elect. Upon elections of President and Vice President of the Republic, of National Representatives and of Members of the European Parliament for the Republic of Bulgaria, the voter shall furthermore present a declaration completed in a standard form to the effect that he or she has not voted and will not vote elsewhere in the same elections. The said declaration shall be attached to the electoral roll and shall constitute an integral part thereof. All particulars of the voter according to the identity document thereof shall be entered on the roll. https://www.cik.bg/bg/8, Election Code, pdf file, page 13

[3] Please refer to Reference 4, Beginning and End of Voting: Article 220. (1)

[4] Beginning and End of Voting: Article 220. (1) (Amended, SG No. 39/2016, effective 26.05.2016) Voters shall vote from 7:00 hours until 20:00 hours. The polls abroad shall open at 7:00 hours local time and shall close at 20:00 hours local time. Should any voters who have not voted be outside the polling site at 20:00 hours, the chairperson and the secretary of the section election commission shall establish the number and identity of the said voters. (2) (Amended, SG No. 39/2016, effective 26.05.2016) The voters who have not voted shall deliver the identity documents thereof to the commission, and the voters who are nationals of another Member State of the European Union shall deliver the residence certificate thereof as well. Only these voters shall be admitted to voting after 20:00 hours, but not later than 21:00 hours. https://www.cik.bg/bg/8 Election Code, pdf file, page 89

[5] Article 33, (3) Any refusal by a section election commission abroad to admit to voting and to effect an additional entry of a voter on polling day shall be in writing, shall be served upon the person concerned and may be disputed before the Central Election Commission by electronic means. The Central Election Commission shall forthwith pronounce by a decision which shall be made public immediately on the Internet site of the Commission. https://www.cik.bg/bg/8 Election Code, pdf file, page 13

[6] Please refer to Reference 5 above,  Article 33, (3)

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