Bulgarian president seeks referendum to boost voter turnout


Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev proposed yesterday (29 January) a national referendum on how election rules might be changed and boost low trust in the political institutions in the wake of massive protests in the Balkan country last year. If agreed, the referendum will take place together with the European elections on 25 May.

Plevneliev proposed a national referendum in which Bulgarians will have their say on whether they want to elect some lawmakers directly rather than from party lists, voting made obligatory and electronic voting allowed.

At present, Bulgarians can choose 240 parliament members only from party lists.

The plebiscite, which is pending parliament approval, should be held along with the European elections on 25 May, Plevneliev said in an address to the nation late on Wednesday.

"I appeal to the parliament to take a decision to hold a referendum … I believe will help to stabilise the institutions and increase public trust," he said.

Street protests in Bulgaria, one of the European Union's poorest and most corrupt members, have demanded voting changes to hold politicians more accountable.

Recent polls showed trust in the parliament had plunged to 10%, the lowest since the fall of communism 25 years ago.

The ruling Socialist-led coalition, with a fragile majority in parliament, won approval on a first reading for a new election law which would not introduce direct voting or compulsory and electronic voting.

The right to choose some lawmakers directly will answer to public demand, said Plevneliev, who was elected president in 2011 on the ticket of the opposition centre-right GERB party.

Compulsory voting would boost the legitimacy of results, fight voter apathy and decrease the effects of possible vote buying, he said. It would also ensure that parliament was not monopolised by those who represented party members.

"Let the voice of the people be heard, not bought," Plevneliev said.

The ruling Socialists and their ethnic Turkish DPS partners have opposed the idea of compulsory voting, pointing out that it would mean penalties for those who refused to cast a ballot.

Obligatory voting is likely to reduce the representation for the DPS party in the parliament, as ethnic Turks, who make up about 9% of the 7.3 million population, are relatively active voters.

Plevneliev argued that electronic voting would help tens of thousands of Bulgarians living abroad participate in elections.

The Socialists have said that the e-voting will be hard to secure technically and could be manipulated by hackers.

Bulgaria is among the EU countries with the lowest turnout at national and European elections.

At the last European elections in 2009, the turnout in Bulgaria was 37.49%, against an average of 43.24% for the 27 EU members. At the early parliamentary elections on 12 May 2013 the turnout was 51.3%, the lowest for a parliamentary election since the end of communism.

At the parliamentary election, held on 12 May, the party GERB (Citizens for a European development of Bulgaria) of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov emerged as the largest party with 97 of the 240 seats.

But as GERB proved incapable of finding a coalition partner, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which obtained 84 seats, formed a cabinet with the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a mainly ethnic Turkish force, which obtained 36 seats.

As they control just 120 MPs, the two governing forces BSP and DPS enjoy the tacit support of Ataka, a nationalist and xenophobic force, which obtained 23 seats.

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