Contestants in Bulgarian elections could reach out to voters freely, but some recommendations remain to be addressed

Contestants in Bulgaria’s early parliamentary elections could reach out to voters freely, while the low-key campaign was generally characterised by public disillusionment with politics and election weariness, international observers concluded in a preliminary statement released today. The legal framework is largely conducive to holding democratic elections, and amendments since the 2014 elections addressed some previous recommendations for improvements, but further efforts are needed, the statement says.

“We concluded that on election day the citizens of Bulgaria could make a free choice in elections that were well organised, although certain shortcomings remain. The Electoral Code allows all citizens, independently of their ethnic origins, to elect their representatives to the National Assembly. Also, the delegation was informed by various interlocutors of cases of interference by the government of a foreign country in the electoral process. The newly elected National Assembly of Bulgaria will have the responsibility to work to resolve both internal and external tensions,” said Marie-Christine Dalloz, Head of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). “The Parliamentary Assembly remains at the disposal of the newly elected Parliament to pursue its co-operation in the framework of its monitoring procedure, in order to improve its electoral legislation and its implementation.”

Previous recommendations by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission that remain to be addressed include those related to suffrage rights, campaign finance reporting, and the complaints and appeals system. The limitation of the number of polling stations in non-European Union countries has a discriminatory effect, the observers said.

“The campaign leading up to yesterday’s elections allowed participants to compete for the support of the electorate. With regard to the laws and rules governing elections, work still needs to be done to bring these more in line with OSCE commitments and other international standards,” said Roman Jakic, Head of the OSCE/ODIHR limited election observation mission. “Today’s statement will be followed by a final report with recommendations on how to address the shortcomings identified in the legal framework and electoral practice. I hope the authorities will see the final report as an opportunity to follow up and address these issues.”

The Electoral Code prohibits campaigning in any language other than Bulgarian, which affected the ability of some contestants to communicate with the electorate. Some parties used inflammatory and xenophobic rhetoric, mainly against the Roma and Turkish communities, the statement says. The authorities and some political parties claimed on a number of occasions that Turkish authorities interfered with the electoral process.

The media provided contestants with a platform to present their views through debates, talk shows and paid advertisement. While contestants actively used the free time provided on public broadcasters, sparse broadcast news coverage and limited editorial content in the print media, along with a lack of political investigative and analytical reporting, significantly limited the information available to voters. Paid advertisement in print and, to a lesser extent, broadcast media were often almost indistinguishable from editorial coverage, thus misleading voters about their nature.

In general, the election administration conducted its work in a professional and transparent manner, although the Central Election Commission did not reach the required qualified majority to approve several decisions. The voting process on election day was transparent, but some procedural shortcomings were noted during counting in the limited number of polling stations observed.

Thirty-one per cent of candidates were women. Women led 132 of the 614 candidate lists, and were well-represented in the election administration, although there are no gender-related requirements for the composition of candidate lists or election bodies.

The Electoral Code establishes a timely resolution process for complaints, but does not ensure that the complainant is informed about the time and place of the hearing or has the right to be present or receive a copy of the decision.

The Electoral Code provides for citizen, party and international observation, and numerous party and citizen observers were accredited. Based, however, on its interpretation of 2016 amendments to the Electoral Code, the Central Election Commission denied registration to three organisations for having board members that were also candidates or held election administration posts.

For further information contact:
Thomas Rymer, ODIHR, +359 877669348 or +48 609 522 266, thomas.rymer@odihr.pl

Chemavon Chahbazian, PACE, +33 (0) 650 687 655, chemavon.chahbazian@coe.int