1. Juli 2013
Elections in Bulgaria:
«Rules should help us to overcome conflicts
in a peaceful way, and that is exactly
what democracy should do»
Mr GROSS (Switzerland) – When you want to observe the crisis in democracy in Europe today in all aspects – social, political and economic, and in relations between institutions and citizens – you have to go to Bulgaria. In the past three months, a huge political and social crisis led to anticipated elections. The elections gave clear results but divided parliament. Today is the 11th day when people have been on the streets. No crisis has been resolved; we go on. We must think about this element. In January and February, more than 100’000 people went into the streets because of social misery, which led to the centre-right government stepping down. -- A caretaker parliament prepared elections, but they were marked by total distrust in fair procedures, and by the distance between citizens and politicians. Nearly no citizens believed that politicians can make a change or a difference, which led to participation of only a little more than 50 %. On the day before the election, nearly 400’000 ballot sheets, which enabled people to cheat, were found in a private printing shop belonging to one of the members of the centre-right government party. People were again confirmed in their belief that they could not trust the fairness of the process. -- On election day, we observed a lot of errors and cheating. Some 15 % of the people admitted that they were ready to sell or buy votes – 15 % is nearly one third of those who participated. The result was that the parliament was divided. The former government won, but nobody wanted to form a coalition with it, so the parties that came second and third instead formed a centre-left government. One of its first decisions was a big mistake – it appointed a media mogul who had been dismissed for corruption under a previous government as the chief of the security institution. Immediately, 10'000 people went on to the streets. The president’s competence to make that nomination was removed and the government was immediately criticized. It then admitted that it had been a mistake, and the parliament corrected it, but still the people went on to the streets, because they did not believe that the new parliamentary majority could do the work needed to help people out of economic misery. Their distrust has not changed, and that mistake has been a symbol of it. -- This is a big story, and we should look much more carefully at it and think about it much more deeply. It is a crisis of democracy, because democracy did not help the people and has not served the common interest. That is an alarming issue, and we have to continue to work to make a change.
THE PRESIDENT – Thank you, Mr Gross. That brings us to our list of speakers for the general debate. First, I call Ms de Pourbaix-Lundin on behalf of the Group of the European People’s Party.
Ms de POURBAIX-LUNDIN (Sweden) – I thank the two rapporteurs. Why did the EPP ask for an urgent debate on Georgia? I will give some examples of what has happened there since the peaceful changeover of power last year. Former ministers, former prime ministers, about 100 politicians and civil servants have been arrested and charged, not for corruption but because of administrative decisions that they took when they were in power; and in two thirds of municipalities, the local governor has been changed without election. Those are just two examples of why we believe the Assembly should give a clear signal to the majority in Georgia before the election in October that it should follow its obligations to human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The Assembly has missed the chance to do that, because our request has been voted down. -- In was in Bulgaria pre-election in April and for the election in May, and I could really feel the suspicion in the air. It brought to my mind the Elvis Presley song «Suspicious Minds» and the lyric, «we can’t build our dreams on suspicious minds». It is not a dream but reality that needs to be built in Bulgaria, and that cannot be done on suspicious minds. There is suspicion everywhere – among politicians, and between politicians and citizens – and as we politicians know, confidence can be lost in one second but it takes much longer to regain it. The President of Bulgaria, whom we met several times, has wisely said that no politician should promise more than they can deliver. He tried to handle the situation, and the caretaker government tried to make the best of it. -- Before election day, we heard a lot about vote buying and controlled voting, with people trying to force others to vote in a particular way. That is hard to prove, of course, but there was discussion about the voters list, which contained the names of about 800’000 people who were no longer in Bulgaria. Nobody knows whether someone else tried to vote in their name, and it is a challenge to deal with that. The suspicion that exists can also be seen in the fact that the turnout was as low as 51 % and in the strange fact that when we asked some national observers which party they represented, they said «I don’t want to tell you.» Of course, I observed things that were not good, but I will not go into that. -- Bulgaria now has a socialist-liberal government, but thousands of people are back on the streets and we do not know whether there will be a new election in a couple of months. Bulgaria needs stability. We wish it the best, but we may have to go there for more election observation pretty soon.
Mr HARUTYUNYAN (Armenia) – I will refer mostly to the progress report presented by Mr Santini, and I congratulate him on his excellent report. I also congratulate Mr Gross, head of our Assembly’s observation mission during the elections in Bulgaria.
THE PRESIDENT – Thank you, Mr Harutyunyan. I call Mr Villumsen on behalf of the Group of the Unified European Left.
Mr VILLUMSEN (Denmark) – I thank Mr Santini and Andreas Gross for the report on Bulgaria. I participated in the election observation on behalf of the Group of the Unified European Left. Unfortunately, that observation clearly showed that Bulgaria is an example of the crisis democracy is facing in Europe. Trust was urgently needed between the people and political institutions after a large popular protest at the beginning of this year, but unfortunately the election did not create that trust. The election campaign was characterized by scandal after scandal. In particular, the accusation against the former Interior Minister concerning illegal interception in respect of journalists, political opponents and fellow ministers created, of course, distrust among the people. Furthermore, the arrest the day before the election of a Conservative councilor due to nearly 400’000 fake ballot papers also created mistrust and worry among the people. -- Our delegation observed vote buying and irregularities in vote counting. Furthermore, we observed that the country faces clear structural problems that should be addressed by the Assembly. First, minorities are not allowed to use their mother tongue during the campaign, which especially hits the large Turkish and Roma minorities in the country. Secondly, parties have to pay to get media attention during a campaign, and there is no clear division between news that has been paid for and normal broadcasting. That means that money is needed to get attention, which is clearly very problematic. -- To conclude, the Council of Europe should pay a lot of attention to what is happening in Bulgaria, and continue our work. We play a crucial role because other European institutions, especially the European Union, did not send election observers to Bulgaria, even though there was a clear need to do so. We need to take the problems in Bulgaria seriously and follow what is happening. I urge the Bulgarian Government to listen to our recommendations and try to do better in the future.
THE PRESIDENT – Mr Nikoloski does not appear to be in the Chamber, so I call Mr Stoilov.
Mr STOILOV (Bulgaria) – Distinguished members of the Assembly, in my opinion the report by the head of the election observation mission, Andreas Gross, is objective and thorough. Today the political crisis in Bulgaria continues after the early parliamentary elections in May. Mr Gross explained the reasons why. Changes to the electoral code made in February were a positive response to certain recommendations of the Venice Commission and the OSCE. However, most of the changes are of a technical nature; hence last week the Bulgarian Parliament elected an interim committee, which, jointly with representatives of civil society organizations, will draft a new electoral code in the next few months. Thus, we are responding to some of the recommendations of the post-monitoring dialogue between Bulgaria and the Parliamentary Assembly. -- The election campaign was hit by two phone-tapping scandals. Among the main characters were the former prime minister and the former minister of the interior of GERB – Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria – the former ruling party. Furthermore, only a day before the elections, the Sofia prosecutor’s office found and confiscated 480’000 illegal ballots in a private printing house belonging to a member of the same party. It is not known how many such ballots were used in the election. -- Immediately after the election results were announced, the leader of GERB called for them to be invalidated, while the party’s parliamentary group asked the constitutional court to declare the elections illegal. This is perhaps unprecedented in European politics and electoral processes. The party that received the most votes in the election but failed to form a government, and which had appointed 30 of the 31 chairs of the district election committees, sought to have the election invalidated. -- I agree with the conclusion of the report that the early parliamentary elections in Bulgaria were held in a competitive environment and that fundamental freedoms were respected. However, I accept the weaknesses and violations noted by the report. Bulgaria now has a government elected by the new parliament. It has taken its first, successful steps in some social and economic areas. At the same time, the national assembly has made changes in national security, one of which caused widespread social unrest and protests. The decision was almost immediately cancelled, but tensions remain high. There are appeals for the government to resign and for new early elections. The main opposition party is boycotting parliament’s sessions. -- I believe that at present Bulgaria needs stability and, at the same time, a radical change of the continuing policy from the transition period. It is clear that we can expect a difficult and hot political summer, not only in Bulgaria, but in the southern Balkans in general.
Mr TOSHEV (Bulgaria) – I delivered my farewell speech during the April part-session, but the delay in the election of the new Bulgarian delegation has given me the opportunity to lead a kind of political afterlife, in accordance with Rule 10.3 of the Assembly. I would like to use this opportunity to express my views on the early parliamentary elections held in Bulgaria on 12 May. -- I would like first to express my gratitude to the Parliamentary Assembly’s delegation, headed by Mr Andreas Gross. Its presence during the elections was significant in strengthening people’s confidence in representative democracy. -- It would be wrong to consider these early elections outside the context of the current situation in Bulgaria. There were large street demonstrations, which should be considered not as a kind of Bulgarian spring, but as a Bulgarian winter. These events were initially caused by high heating and electricity bills in January 2013, which coincided with several decisions taken by parliament to cease Bulgarian participation in several big energy projects of Russian interest and with predominantly Russian involvement. These were the Burgas-Alexandroupoli oil pipeline and a second Belene nuclear power plant, in a region of high seismic activity. The competition for deep-water gas drilling in the Black Sea’s Khan Asparuh block, where substantial gas and oil resources stand to be exploited, was jointly won by a French company, Total, together with Austria’s OMV and Spain’s Repsol, instead of a Russian-American consortium. This project could increase Bulgaria’s energy independence. -- In my opinion, those decisions were the reason why the protesters were joined by some pro-Russian groups in Bulgaria. The political diversity of the protesters in the February demonstrations was the reason why they were unable to unite before the elections. They split sharply into factions and fought against each other; consequently, they are not represented in the newly elected parliament. They did not offer a better model for society either. However, after the elections a parliamentary coalition was established by the Socialist Party and the Movement of Freedoms and Rights. Ataka, the nationalist party, cast one vote to establish a quorum in the sitting at which the elections look place, after which its MPs did not participate in the vote, with only one symbolically voting against. Their absence during the vote changed the proportion and facilitated the election of the government by 119 votes from a total of 240. -- The newly elected government’s first steps have fuelled fears of a revision of Bulgaria’s European path of development. That is why I call on the Assembly to watch developments in Bulgaria closely and send critical or supportive signals when needed.
Mr HEER (Switzerland) – I thank Andy Gross for his report. I myself was active as an election observer in Bulgaria. At first sight, I was unable to detect any serious irregularities. I was in Montana, a mountainous region of the country, in a rather remote area. The election office there seemed to be very well organized, although I am not sure that was necessarily the case across the board. -- It is a fact that there is social unrest in Bulgaria. The rapporteur has explained the underlying reasons for that. We as the Council of Europe cannot resolve the issue; rather, it is for politicians in Bulgaria to achieve a better settlement for their citizens. Andy Gross said that an electoral list was found a day before the elections – although it was not entirely clear to me whether it had been stamped. On the other hand, it is at least to be welcomed that such things have come to light and been exposed in the Bulgarian press. That speaks to the fact that the Bulgarian population is ripe for democracy and that illegal activities are being detected by Bulgarians themselves. That is a precondition for building a functioning democracy. -- I do not think we should seek to tell people how to operate in such countries. Rather, we should recognize that some of our countries have a longstanding tradition of democracy – as is the case for Switzerland – but that not all democracies in Europe are so long established, so we should not try to tick people off or teach them lessons. Instead, we should provide them with our very best assistance, and help people to fight for democracy. Whether we are talking about left–wing parties or right–wing parties, we need to protect the concept of democracy so that the people can have their say about their own future. (...)
THE PRESIDENT - Thank you. Mr Gross, you have two minutes.
Mr GROSS (Switzerland) – I am glad that we agree on the basic points, despite our political differences. The main thing to think about now is how to give support, and how to help overcome this ongoing social, economic and political crisis. I want to share with you one way in which we have already done that. -- We on the sub-committee of the Venice Commission gave ourselves a duty to draw up a report on how to handle the issue of those 800’000 Bulgarians who, though they live abroad, do not vote abroad, but are still on the list of voters at home; everyone knows that they never come back to vote, and that gives rise to the potential for manipulation, and for the distribution of their votes among people in the queues at polling stations. As has been said, this happens not only in Bulgaria, but in other countries. We have to draw up standards on how to deal with this while respecting freedom of movement and the freedom to vote in elections. This is one of the huge problems that we have to tackle. -- Mr Stoilov said that a new electoral code was being drawn up. I ask him to guarantee that that goes to the Venice Commission, because it is the expert. As was said at its last meeting, it is the constitutional fire brigade of the Council of Europe. When it comes to tackling a new constitution – I think it is true that that is the wish of the people – we should do it together to overcome the problems. Rules are there to make human beings serve the general interest, and not their personal interest. Rules should help us to overcome conflicts in a peaceful way, and that is exactly what democracy should do. We have to do all that we can to make it possible to deliver that in Bulgaria.
Kontakt mit Andreas Gross