Bulgarian nationalists block border with Turkey to stop “electoral tourism”

Bulgarian nationalists block border with Turkey to stop “electoral tourism”
By Dimitar Koychev in Sofia March 22, 2017

Hundreds of supporters of the United Patriots coalition blocked border checkpoints between Bulgaria and Turkey for several hours on March 21 in a bid to prevent “electoral tourism”.

In the run-up to Bulgaria's March 26 general election, Sofia has several times criticised what it says is interference in the election by Turkish officials. Turks are Bulgaria’s largest ethnic minority, accounting for around 8% of the population, and over 400,000 Bulgarian nationals live in Turkey. 

The United Patriots coalition includes three nationalist parties – the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), VMRO-Bulgarian National Movement and Ataka. The blockades were led by NFSB leader Valeri Simeonov, Ataka leader Volen Siderov and VMRO leader Krasimir Karakachanov.

The United Patriots claimed to have information that around 1,000 buses with at least 50,000 voters from Turkey were expected to cross the border ahead of the March 26 vote, the Associated Press reported. 

On its website, VMRO said that the nationalist coalition is against the practice of electoral engineering involving the transfer of votes from one party to another.

The nationalists criticised both the predominantly ethnic-Turk party Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and the new entrant Dost. Simeonov was quoted by Dnevnik as saying that they are ready to block the border again two days before the elections, depending on what the reactions from the Bulgarian and Turkish sides are. He also noted that at one of the three blocked border checkpoints there were clashes with the police.

Until 2016, Bulgarian Turks voted mainly for the DPS. The party has had a long presence in Bulgaria’s politics and has been a coalition partner in several Bulgarian governments. The DPS describes itself as a liberal democratic party.

However, in April 2016 former DPS leader Lyutvi Mestan founded a new party called Dost. 

A week setting up the party, Mestan had visited Ankara and told then Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that there was a need for strategic partnership between Bulgaria and Turkey and that the new party would contribute in this respect. In August, Mestan also met Turkey’s new Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. In October, a Dost delegation led by Mestan held a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.

Presently, Dost is the player strongly favoured by Ankara, and earlier this month Bulgarian Deputy Foreign Minister Boyko Mirchev summoned the Turkish ambassador in Sofia over reports that a Turkish minister had campaigned on behalf of Dost. 

This has resulted in strained relations between the neighbouring countries. On March 17, in a televised interview President Rumen Radev said that Turkey’s interference in the Bulgarian elections "is a fact and is inadmissible”. Meanwhile, the Turkish authorities have denied any interference in the Bulgarian election campaign.