I set off to Bulgaria after being selected by the Party of European Socialists to be part of the 100 plus team from all across the EU to monitor the General Election on Sunday. The president of PES, Sergei Stanishev, who is a former prime minister of Bulgaria and leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, had appealed for observers because of the very real fears of vote manipulation and vote buying by the GERB party that resigned from government after violent mass street protests against austerity measures, rising electricity prices and corruption in February.
The OSCE (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) also sent around 200 observers. Other groups such as Transparency International had sent up an election abuse monitoring unit and had observers at polling stations. The presence of these observers made major news headlines in Bulgaria. We were all officially registered with the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry and had stamped passes that granted us major powers within the polling stations.
I finally arrived in Sofia late Friday afternoon and meet up with other arrivals from France, Brussels, Greece and Holland for the coach trip to our hotel. We were greeted by Nikola Mitov who is the BSP’s director of international affairs.
On Saturday the work began. There was a briefing session for English speaking observers with a detailed talk on the voting law, polling station procedures with numerous forms to be filled in. If anybody enters the polling station with a gun we have to note it on the form!
Around 13.00 I headed off to Kyunstendil, about 90 kms from Sofia with a snow covered mountain backdrop. My driver – interpreter Georgi stopped at the BSP party headquarters at Dupritsa which was in the same 100km wide constituency. We had lunch with the number two candidate, Ivan Ibrishimov who on Sunday was elected as the BSP’s second MP, the local party chairman Stanislav Pavlov, who is also number four on the list plus some activists.
As we had lunch news came in that 350,000 fake ballot papers had been discovered by police after a raid on a printing works owned by a GERB councillor. The councillor told the media it was not anything to worry about! On to Kyunstendil where we met the district chairman and former mayor Valentine Volvo and were briefed on polling day strategy.
The Roma gypsies are the most likely to sell their votes for cash or beer and food. One scam is a gypsy gang leader sits in a car near the polling station. He already has a ballot paper stamped with the first of the two stamps a legal vote requires. A Roma comes by takes the ballot paper from him which is already marked. He then presents his identity card, receives another stamped ballot paper which when in the polling booth he puts in his pocket and deposits the voting paper he was given into the box after it has received the second stamp. He then takes his ballot paper out to the gang leader, who takes it from him, fills it in and gives it to the next bought voter. Georgi says this is called the Indian Scam but nobody could tell me why. It is possible these illegal blank votes were for the vote buying operation.
So to polling day and back to Dupritsa. The day didn’t get off well with the local election commission advising it had changed the supervising teams and hence many wouldn’t have documentation. Sent an urgent email to Transparency International who started an investigation. News came in that two polling station in a complex of nine had refused to give the second stamp on the ballot papers which made them invalid. We went to investigate but of course once we arrived and showed our official papers the voting procedures were fully adhered to.
However there were three Roma polling stations at the same school complex and there the atmosphere was very different. There were groups of Roma supporting the former ruling party GERB openly intimidating those coming to vote in the corridor. They bragged to Georgi they could vote when and how they wanted acting in an aggressive manner when we monitored what was going on. There was no obvious sign of vote buying and nothing you could point out to officials so we went back several times to make the point we were hadn’t been scared off and we were watching.
Then a curious case. A report that 60 ballots had been accepted but not recorded at a school polling station. By the time we arrived so too had officials from the commission. The number was in fact 47 and the chairwoman said she had put a youth in charge of the polling who apparently did not realize you had to cross off voters names and get them to sign. The chairwoman argued it was an unfortunate mistake. The ballots couldn’t be taken out of the box as nobody knew which they were so when the final tally was completed after the polls closed there would be 47 votes too many. I shall return to this is a moment
Whilst we were there a man on crutches complained to us that none of the three polling stations at this complex would give him a ballot paper. He was told to enter the polling room with us at which point he was promptly given a ballot paper; they didn’t even make a show of searching for his name: then all the procedures were correctly followed. Later the Election Commission ruled the chairwoman had deliberately added the 47 votes for GERB and she was sanctioned.
There were no signs of vote buying at the Roma centres but by mid-afternoon the news reports told of three men having been arrested for committing the crime that day. Also by late afternoon when Roma usually crowded their polling stations they were empty with reports they simply had not turned out. TV stated that Turkish Bulgarians who normally flood across the border from Turkey to support Ataka (the Islam Party whose name translates as Attack and according to electoral law should be illegal) had seemingly not travelled either. Something was clearly in play here. Feedback from the local Roma said they’d be threatened by GERB so they stayed at home.
In the Kyunstendil constituency there were around 100 cases of voting abuse by GERB. In one polling station the GERB observer smashed the photocopying machine preventing the copying of the end of poll protocol showing the result. He only delayed but couldn’t prevent the inevitable. As voters swung to the BSP and they took two of the four seats, up one, these abuses will not be contested. We didn’t meet sitting BSP MP Maya Manolova as after the polls closed rioting broke out in Sofia and she was ordered to the capital.
Obviously my experiences were just a snap shot of the election process across Bulgaria. Was the polling process carried out in a manner that we would find acceptable: no it wasn´t. However it was clear the chairpersons of the polling station committees were very concerned at our presence: one even protesting that everything she did was in order. Indeed when we were present everything was in order but it is clear in some cases there had been irregularities before we arrived and they may have started again as soon as we left. It is important though to state that probably because of the international observers these elections were far more free and fair than in the past. There is hope now that as GERB is unlikely to continue in government further advances can be made in establishing free and fair elections. At the next election it is vital the observers are allowed to return and in even greater numbers because it is quite clear the fact the world was watching did have a beneficial impact on this troubled democracy.
Photo: l to r: Georgi, Dr Ivan Ibrishimov (now BSP MP), David Eade, Stanislav Pavlov and activist.
(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on May 14 2013 with a version in the New People on May 17 2013)