Voting violations such as ballot rigging, vote buying and control are acts we associate with the shadier, non democratic nations of the world. However such practices are alive and well right here in the EU.
Let us start in Budapest in Hungary. In March it was the venue for the Party of European Socialists (PES) Activists meeting specifically to give support to the Hungarian Socialist Party, MSzP. There has been concern in the EU at the actions of the ruling populist Fidesz party, which has been clamping down on the freedom of the media and has amended the Constitution to make unconstitutional laws constitutional. These measures and the rise of far right neo-Nazi groups such as Jobbik have caused widespread alarm.
Present in Budapest was the PES President and leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), Sergei Stanishev, who is a former Bulgarian Prime Minister. Stanishev stunned PES activists by calling for international observers to help oversee the polling in Bulgaria’s general election on May 12. He stated: “During the last presidential and local elections in 2011 the ruling right wing party GERB committed a huge number of violations and fraud. Now they have introduced changes in the Electoral code in a way that hinders the transparency of the election process and creates prerequisites for distortion and frankly substitution of results, while refusing to incorporate a number of OSCE (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) recommendations.” He added that other socialist party leaders he spoke to were incredulous when he said vote rigging was possible in an EU member State.
Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boiko Borisov and his GERB government resigned following nationwide street protests against high electricity prices and austerity measures in February. Clashes between protesters and police left numerous people injured. The President Rosen Plevneliev appointed with some difficulty an interim prime minister to take the country through to early elections on May 12.
As elsewhere around the world the protests were taking place largely independently of traditional political parties and trade unions. The protestors, mainly young people, were using the social media including Facebook to organize. The street protests across Bulgaria, which is the EU’s poorest country, were initially over high electricity prices but then took an anti-government turn resulting in Borisov- a former bodyguard to Bulgaria’s Soviet-era dictator Todor Zhivkov - abandoning power, for now.
Before the unrest GERB were trailing in polls to the opposition BSP: currently the former ruling party has a six point lead. Although Stanishev leads his BSP in to the elections he says he will not be prime minister again rather former finance minister, Plamen Oresharski, would take on the role.
The key question is: is there any validity in BSP leader Sergei Stanishev’s fears of vote rigging? The answer sadly is “Yes!” Transparency International has an office in Sofia and a special team dedicated to monitoring the General Election. A spokesperson told me: “Fortunately, the protest related tension has settled down in the past month and we hope to have a peaceful election day on May 12. The most significant challenges that we have identified to persist in the electoral process in Bulgaria are vote-buying and controlled vote, which are clearly a product of the socio-economic conditions in country being taken advantage by both political and criminal actors.”
However this isn’t a new phenomenon in Bulgaria, indeed Sergei Stanishev openly admits his administration ignored the problem when he was in power. Transparency International has been monitoring corruption in Bulgaria for many years and its on-going reports are too detailed to relate here but can be found on their website.
The Transparency International spokesperson added: “Another type of persisting deficiency that we have identified from previous observations is the so called “organizational violations” related to the inadequate capacity and actions of the institutions responsible to organize and prepare the elections. We will systematically monitor these institutions via an instrument called Roadmap to the 2013 Elections and provide timely recommendations to the institutions on the basis of identified issues by Transparency International – Bulgaria and the options to be corrected.”
There will be international PES observers in Bulgaria for the elections and indeed Transparency International and other organisations will also be monitoring the polling with their own teams. The burning questions are how is it an EU Member State can not guarantee free and fair elections and if it can’t, as is clearly the situation in Bulgaria, why was it admitted to the EU in the first place?
Surely one of the prerequisites to being a member of the EU is an adherence to the norms of democracy. Either a country complies or it shouldn’t be in the EU.
Hungary is very much under notice from other EU member States who are alarmed at developments there under Fidesz. The general election is due there next year: will it be fair and free?
It is not only democracy that will be on trial in Bulgaria on May 12 but the credibility of the EU itself. If one Member State is undemocratic then it shatters the democratic credibility of the others. And the EU’s credibility as a democratic institution is very much on the line.
This is especially so as a new scandal has now hit Bulgaria. There have been allegations of illegal phone tapping which are linked to Tzvetan Tzvetanov, the former Minister of the Interior. And what is Tzvetan Tzvetanov’s current role? He is Director of Elections for the GERB party. The latest dramatic development is the former GERB Minister of Agriculture, Miroslav Naydenov, has announced that he too had been subject to illegal phone tapping. Stanishev says previously GERB Prime Minister, Boiko Borisov, had boasted in the media that he has 100 eyes and 100 ears. The BSL leader adds this latest “revelation puts that comment in the harshest light”.
In the European Parliament, the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, will discuss whether they should formally debate the issue. The inclination at the EU is to dismiss such scandals as a matter for “internal political debate”. EU leaders bury their heads in the sand as democracy flounders around them. Bulgaria today. Hungary tomorrow? Then where next?
(You can visit Transparency Internationals website for their campaign for monitoring of the elections at: www.samizbiram.bg)
(The above article was published in the London Progressive Journal on April 27 2013)