Reports of numerous violations and irregularities marred the late October presidential and local elections in Bulgaria. But the court has found little evidence to support such claims.
By Tzvetina Borisova and Ladislav Tzvetkov for Southeast European Times in Sofia -- 16/12/11
The Constitutional Court approved the results of Bulgaria’s presidential and local elections. [File]
Six weeks after voters went to the polls, controversies continue to weigh on the process amid accusations that how the vote was held in many places influenced the results in favour of one candidate or another.
Seventy-one lawmakers from the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and the nationalist ATAKA submitted a claim at the Constitutional Court in mid-November, insisting on the annulment of the election of the ruling GERB party's winning presidential candidates -- President-elect Rosen Plevneliev and Vice-President Margarita Popova.
Among their arguments were the numerous irregularities, the number of eligible voters deprived of their legitimate right to cast ballots due to having been erroneously included in the so-called "prohibited voters list", and unauthorised access to ballot papers, among others.
On Wednesday (December 14th) the court ruled the presidential vote legitimate, thus rejecting the claim. The Constitutional Court's decision is final and cannot be appealed.
The local elections and the way they were held have been disputed as well. The Greens party, the BSP and the Party for the People filed a lawsuit at the Sofia Administrative Court shortly after the vote, citing similar concerns, as well as the fact that people had very little time to vote since the ballots were extremely long and complicated. This caused long queues and eventually prevented quite a few people from voting as the polling stations closed.
Actually, this problem prompted the Central Election Commission to extend by a couple of hours the time allowed for voting in the first round of the elections, a move that some experts later deemed a violation of the Election Code.
One of the main issues of concern in the elections involved the so-called "prohibited voters' lists". These included the names of members of the diaspora, who do not currently reside in Bulgaria, as well as people who had not been living in a certain town or village for the four months prior the vote.
Opposition BSP lawmaker Maya Manolova argued those people number nearly 168,000. The ruling GERB party, however, insisted it is no more than 12,000.
The amendments to the electoral code and new requirements for the voting procedures that were introduced before the elections resulted in confusion. Subsequently, there was a record high number of invalid ballots in the first round -- 700,000, including 228,000 ballots in the presidential vote. In comparison, during the 2006 presidential elections there were 77,000 invalid ballots.
Based on the election lists, there were a little over 6.9 million eligible voters in Bulgaria. This figure has also been questioned as unrealistically high. Despite a population census conducted at the beginning of 2011, the election lists were never corrected.
Albena Neykova, a witness in the lawsuit initiated at the Sofia Administrative Court and served as a member of an election commission in a polling station in the capital, argues 78 people of the 650 people registered in her section were on the "prohibited voters list". "Some of those people were surprised to find they were on it," she told SETimes.
Neykova was also a direct witness to the procedure of delivering the ballots to the municipal election commission in Sofia, which later spurred a wide public debate. According to her, representatives of all 1,449 polling stations in the capital were kept in a sports hall all night long, in conditions far from normal.
"The tribunes were full of people who started chanting at one point in protest against the slow work going on. The worst part was that nobody was allowed to go out; we could not even get food," she argues.
It is a public secret that in the chaos that was created, many people illegally brought the bags with the ballots out of the hall and to their homes because they could no longer stand physically being in there.
At its latest session in the election lawsuit, the Sofia Administrative Court rejected all arguments of the plaintiffs, including the requested expert report that was supposed to reveal whether a voter is able to cast his/her ballot in 47 seconds (the approximate time available considering the people who were supposed to vote in one polling station).
The judges also refused to commission an expert report on the thickness of the paper used for ballots. The plaintiffs argued this paper was transparent, which made it possible to see the way voters voted and violated the anonymity of the vote.
"I can't believe that they did not agree to commission at least one of the requested expert reports," Neykova stated.
According to Nikolay Belalov, BSP municipal councilor candidate in Sofia, who is part of a group that has initiated a separate case at the Sofia Administrative Court disputing the elections, their goal was to make the court order a recount in several polling stations in the capital, which he believes would prove that the vote was manipulated.
"Of course, our ultimate goal is to bring another representative of BSP in the municipal council, but this will note make a big difference; it is a matter of principles," he told SETimes.
The ruling GERB party, however, continues to insist that the difficulties encountered in the election process were due to a lack of experience in holding two votes simultaneously. At the same time, the issues that arose in the first round had been analysed and avoided in the second round a week later, GERB argued.
Katya Koleva, chair of the NGO Institute for Social Integration, believes that the violations seen in the latest elections represent a step back in the country's democratic development.
"In 1990, I was a student and I was excited about the change [the fall of communism], hoping we will be moving forward. Today I am not worried about myself, I am concerned about my daughter, who has to fight for freedom and democracy 20 years after 1990," she told SETimes.