Tuesday, May 14, 2013


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)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


Since the transition from the Franco dictatorship to full democracy the Spanish Royal Family have been held in general high regard by the people of Spain. Indeed many would argue that the transition would not have taken place but for King Juan Carlos. Republicans of course take a very different view of things but, for now, that is by the by.
However since the financial crisis started there has been a fall in the support for the Royal Household. This is partly explained with the major loss of confidence in Spain’s institutions but also by the King seemingly being totally of out touch with the problems faced by the average Spaniard. Add to that the corruption scandal surrounding Iñaki Urdangarin, the King’s son-in-law which implicates his wife, the Infanta Cristina, and the Royal Family is in major trouble.
This is reflected in the latest CIS opinion poll that shows the monarchy has an approval rating of just 3.68 on a scale of ten. The last time the Spanish people were asked for their valuation of the Royal Family was in October 2011 when they notched up 4.89, so they have lost 1.2 points since the various scandals hit. Out on the streets there have been major demonstrations demanding an elected head of State instead of a monarch.
Politicians have rallied to the Royals support claiming they have only lost favour only because of the collapse in the Spanish people’s trust in their institutions. When that comes back, they argue, so will their love of the King and his family. They fear that if the Royal family falls then so will Spain as we know it. They are right but this is also a case of the blind leading the blind because the politicians also seem not to be able to comprehend just how low they have sunk in the public’s estimation. Indeed if the Spanish are giving a major thumbs down to the Royals they are raising the middle finger to the politicos.
This is shown in the same CIS opinion poll which brings good news and bad news for the centre right Partido Popular. If an election was held now the PP would win with 34 per cent of the vote whilst socialist PSOE has just 28.2 per cent. Far left Izquierda Unida would come third with the UPyD fourth on 9.4 and 7.4 respectively.
However the real story is the collapse of support for the two main parties since the November 2011 elections. The PP governing amidst a worsening economic crisis and with the Bárcenas corruption scandal ringing in its ears has lost 10.4 support. PSOE has not been able to capitalise on Rajoy’s woes and has seen its support fall by a further six per cent. Only the minor parties such as the IU and UPyD have seen their popularity amongst voters gradually grow.
PSOE’s leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba is more popular than Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy but that is not saying a lot. Rubalcaba has an approval rating of 3 out of 10 down from 3.4 whilst Rajoy has fallen from 2.81 to 2.44.
The worrying factor is Spaniards do not trust the monarchy, the government, the banks and the politicians along with the institutions that surround them so who will they put their trust in? The answer, as I have stated here before from previous surveys, is the military and the security services and that is even more worrying still.
(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on May 8 2013).

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


On Sunday May 12 Bulgaria will hold its general election. The outcome will not only be closely awaited by the people of that country but by fellow EU States and organisations such as Transparency International, which has been monitoring corruption in Bulgaria for over a decade.

The President of the Party of European Socialists, Sergei Stanishev, is also the leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and a former Bulgarian Prime Minister. After the election was called 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.

This wasn’t the case of a socialist leader calling “foul” before the event. Transparency International has a special team dedicated to monitoring the General Election. TI says: “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.” Indeed in the 2011 presidential and local elections 12 per cent of Bulgarians told Transparency International they would sell their votes with nearly 60 per cent of those saying they would do so because of their poverty.

Yet the problems for Bulgaria go much deeper than that. It is not just the GERB ruling party bringing in corrupt practices although there is clear evidence of that. For instance there have been allegations of illegal phone tapping which are linked to Tzvetan Tzvetanov, the former Minister of the Interior who is now the Director of Elections for the GERB party. However Bulgaria has been behind the game all along in making the transition from Communist single party to democratic state.

One of the many Transparency International reports on Bulgaria states: “The problem of corruption became a central political and social concern in Bulgaria towards the end of the 1990s, and since then has topped the governmental agenda. Despite the prioritization of the issue, Bulgaria has systematically demonstrated very high levels of perception of corruption: according to the TI Corruption Perception Index (2011) it is the lowest scoring country in the EU. If there is a trend in this regard, it is rather negative.”

Now Bulgaria became a member of the EU in 2007 when the concerns of the corruption and lack of transparency in political and institutional bodies was well known. I have no problem with Bulgaria becoming a member of the EU: I would however argue that this should have happened after the country had clearly demonstrated that its political parties and institutions were fully transparent. Until that status had been achieved, and we are still far from that situation, then Bulgaria should have been helped along the path to membership by the EU and then admitted. 

On April, 4 an Integrity Pact for Free, Fair and Democratic Election in Bulgaria was signed. The document is elaborated by 8 non-governmental organizations, including Transparency International, all of which will conduct independent civil monitoring of the forthcoming general election.

Transparency International states: “The main objective of the Pact is to commit the political parties to the conduct of election campaigns in accordance to the standards for transparency and accountability, and to the implementation of measures preventing violations of the citizens’ voting rights.”

This is a positive step but the question still remains: why should such steps be even necessary in an EU Member State?

Under the pact the Bulgarian political parties are committing themselves to:
To nominate for members of the Precinct Electoral Commissions candidates with experience in the organization of the electoral process, professional preparation, high personal moral and reputation;
To increase the competence of its representatives to the electoral commissions by conducting additional training with regard to the rules of the electoral process;
To carry out information campaigns against vote-buying, controlled vote and the negative effects on the voters’ rights, and the democratic process in the country;
To ensure public access to information about the number of proxy representatives, by making it available on their websites;
To ensure greater transparency of their elections campaign financing by providing timely information to the National Audit Office, with regard to received donations throughout the campaign;
To assist the independent observers - representatives of the Civil Coalition for Monitoring of the Electoral Process in their efforts to monitor the campaign financing and Election Day developments.
  But it is not just the political parties that are involved but the non-governmental organizations too. They have committed themselves to:
To conduct independent civil monitoring of the electoral process in accordance to the internationally established standards;
To observe the principles of political impartiality, transparency and integrity in the monitoring process;
To carry out information campaign among the Bulgarian citizens with regard to their participation of the electoral process, institutional responsibilities, and negative effects of vote-buying and controlled-vote;
To inform the Bulgarian public and European institutions about the results of the conducted monitoring
To formulate proposal for amendments in the legislation and the practice of the Bulgarian institutions, aiming to enhance transparency and integrity in the Elections to the European Parliament, as well as to offer its expertise to the responsible institutions.
It is quite clear from the Integrity Pact for Free, Fair and Democratic Election that democracy has been seriously abused in Bulgaria and political corruption is rife. However I would firmly argue the blame for this appalling situation rests not only with the government in Sofia, which it surely does, but equally with the EU in Brussels too because it has failed to insist on free and fair elections in Member States.
(The above article was published in the London Progressive Journal on May 1 2013)