Few Bulgarians turn out to answer the €13m nuclear question

By bne IntelliNews January 28, 2013

Sandy Gill in Sofia -

On the face of it, this was quite a momentous occasion. On Sunday, January 27, Bulgaria held its first national referendum since 1971, when voters had obediently nodded through the communist-era "Zhivkov constitution". This time they did so at considerable expense: between BGN20m and BGN25m (€10m-13m), according to a grudging finance minister, Simeon Dyankov. And they did so on what would appear to be an important issue: the question asked was "Should nuclear energy be developed in the Republic of Bulgaria through the construction of a new nuclear power plant?" - referring to a project for the construction of a 2,000-megawatt (MW) nuclear power plant at Belene on the Danube that was killed by the right-of-centre government last year.

Yet when referendum day came, the results were an anti-climax - or rather would have been had they had not been predicted by just about every pollster in Bulgaria. For a referendum result to be binding, according to Bulgarian law, it's necessary not just that more than 50% of votes cast be "yes" votes, but that the total vote be at least as high as that achieved in the preceding general election: the latter number (in 2009) was 4.2m - a healthy 61% of the total current electorate according to the (probably rather inflated) official figures. The referendum turnout was, well, a tad lower - at 21.8%, according to the latest reports.

That, admittedly, doesn't leave the referendum quite without result: the rules also say that if the votes cast exceed 20% of those eligible and more than 50% of those are "yes" votes, the question must be referred for debate in parliament. Both conditions were fulfilled: with around 97% of votes counted, the Central Electoral Commission said that 60.55% had said "yes". No big deal, it seems: at the post-referendum press conference, Prime Minister Boiko Borisov told journalists that when the issue came up for debate it would just be voted down by MPs from his Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB, in its Bulgarian acronym).

So why the low turnout? Well, unless they are strictly necessary, winter polls never go down with voters. And local election showings in Bulgaria suggest that voting in anything that isn't a general or presidential election tends to be desultory and has been getting more so over the years.

But there may be more specific reasons. More intelligent voters may have felt they weren't being asked an especially intelligent or referendum-susceptible question: Borisov's government had eventually rejected the Belene nuclear power plant project because it threatened to be much more expensive than originally expected (over €10bn as against €4bn), because it therefore stood to yield more expensive electricity than hoped, and because, once Germany's RWE had withdrawn in late 2009, no commercial finance could be found for it - as distinct from rather un-commercial finance from Bulgaria's former "big brother", Russia. To ask for a "yes" or "no" answer without reference to the terms on which the plant should be built surely didn't make much sense.

Voters may also have felt that the apparently simple question being asked wasn't a straight one. The referendum petition of the pro-Belene Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) that garnered around 770,000 signatures (though checks had found only around 540,000 of these to be perfectly in order) referred specifically to "Belene". This mention was disallowed - rightly or wrongly - in the referendum question on the constitutional grounds that a referendum couldn't be held about a specific project. GERB first tried to muddy the waters by rephrasing the question to refer to "new atomic capacity": that formulation would have allowed in a proposed seventh reactor at the existing Kozlodui plant, a 1,000-MW project with which, arguing a lower cost given existing infrastructure, Borisov had sought to re-establish his nuclear credentials after withdrawing from Belene.

Forced to settle on a compromise phrasing involving "a new nuclear power plant" - which, logically, excluded "Kozlodui-7" - Borisov for some time insisted that he and his followers would vote "yes" because that would allow the Kozlodui option. Which, in terms of the two main political forces, seemed to promise a non-contest (and one in which anti-nuclear voters had nowhere to go, since a "no" vote could also be used to back Kozlodui-7).

That changed in early January when Borisov suddenly adopted a "three times no" position. Quite a characteristic turnaround - and rather reminiscent of Borisov's heroically extended havering in the two-and-a-half years of government that had preceded the decision to drop Belene - this didn't do much for the image of decisiveness that the two-fisted ex-cop has tried to cultivate. Nor did his subsequent praise for renewables (a sector he has more or less decimated through restrictive legislation in the last 18 months). "Three times no" was somewhat contradicted by disparaging remarks from Borisov and his henchmen on the "pointlessness" of the referendum. And Borisov's political seriousness was further cast into doubt by the suspicious "discovery" in a box in the energy ministry - just a few days before voting - of a letter from RWE showing that BSP leader Sergei Stanishev had known while still prime minister that Belene's price tag was much higher than he had admitted.

But if Borisov's handling of the "no" side of the referendum was tacky, the "yes" side can't be counted an unqualified success. The BSP found itself in questionable company: the extreme nationalists of a coalition including the unsavoury Ataka also called for a yes vote, prompting taunts from conservative leader Ivan Kostov of an emerging "red-brown" alliance. And, above all, the number of those voting in favour of the referendum question was, in the end, not so very much higher than the 770,000-odd signatures the BSP claimed it had collected. If, as opponents have plausibly accused, the BSP sought to use the referendum to "energise its support base" in advance of close-run general elections expected this July, it doesn't seem to have energised it very much. If there's any message emerging from Sunday's vote, then - given that sociological surveys generally show Bulgarian public opinion to be fairly pro-nuclear - it would seem to be "a plague on both your houses".

Meanwhile, both sides are making the best of it. Stanishev and friends are arguing that the referendum results amounted to a vote of no-confidence in Borisov, dismissing low turnout with the argument that, a few years back, Borisov himself was elected Sofia mayor on the strength of support by no more than 20% of those able to vote. Borisov and his followers, by contrast, see the referendum as a flop that reflects badly on its initiator - Dyankov, indeed, has called for Stanishev to resign - and have been calculating how many new nurseries or apartment block rehabilitations could have been financed by the money spent on the "pointless" vote.

Sadly for Bulgarian democracy, both have a point. And, as for the subject of the referendum, that's no nearer solution. Borisov can block any moves to revive Belene this side of elections. But a hypothetically resurgent BSP might, marginally fortified by its technical success on this occasion, have better chances of reviving it thereafter - if its instincts for self-deception and self-immolation are as strong as they have been in the past...

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