Thousands of Bulgarians protested on November 18 against the re-introduction of paper ballots that is set to be accepted by the parliament in its second reading.
Opponents of the change, led by the reformist Change Continues and Democratic Bulgaria, say it will make it easier to buy votes and commit electoral fraud.
However, the parliament’s legal committee already backed changes to the electoral law during a marathon 18-hour session, and Gerb, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) are now expected to back the changes in parliament.
There are also plans to close the section for Bulgarians voting abroad, which critics say would make the voting process outside Bulgaria more chaotic, and use the voting machines Bulgaria recently bought to print paper ballots instead.
Critics of the changes see them as preparation for new early election by Gerb, the DPS and the BSP, dubbed by their opponents “The Paper Coalition”.
In the mud
“Citizens will not leave their republic in the mud. They will not abandon their country,” Hristo Ivanov, one of the leaders of Democratic Bulgaria, said during the protest.
It was organised by Change Continues, Democratic Bulgaria, the Save Sofia movement that is going to register as political party, Justice for All and BOEC anti-corruption movements.
“Do we want to allow those who want to change the ballot to steal your vote? Do we want these [politicians] who want to turn voting machines into printers with which to continue the manipulations,” Kiril Petkov, co-founder of Change Continues, said.
In an interview with public broadcaster BNR, Ivanov also said that the return to paper ballots represents a test for a new ruling majority of Gerb, the DPS and the BSP.
“What is happening is more than what is being done – this is not just a return to the paper ballots as additional way of voting. This is a testing of mutual loyalty and readiness to reach to the end as a prerequisite for the formation of a government in this trilateral format,” Ivanov said.
Coalition in the making
No new coalition has yet been announced following the October 2 snap general election, which produced a fragmented parliament.
However, there is speculation the three parties could decide to work together.
It is widely believed that such a three- or four-party coalition would be possible with the third mandate but not with the first, which will be given to Gerb, which won the election with 25.3% of the vote. The second mandate, if Gerb fails to form a government, would go to Change Continues that ranked second.
Ivanov said that the window for setting up a government with the second mandate is very slim. He added that Democratic Bulgaria would back a coalition if three top priorities are included in a ruling programme – significant improvement of Bulgaria’s defence capabilities, reform of the judiciary and clear policy towards exiting the economic crisis.
Atanas Atanassov, co-leader of Democratic Bulgaria, said that Gerb, the DPS and the BSP have been rushing to re-introduce the paper ballots ahead of the local election due to take place in 2023 so that Gerb can keep its monopoly in the local governments.
‘Democracy on the square’
Boyko Borissov, the leader of Gerb, has proposed to the other political parties in parliament to discuss the electoral law changes for a week before voting on them in the second and final reading. Borissov also proposed that a parliamentary committee should be formed to discuss the electoral law, suggesting it should include representatives of Gerb, Change Continues, Democratic Bulgaria and Bulgarian Ascend.
Borissov called the protest “democracy on the square” and argued that it was not democracy and could turn into a civil war. He accused a minority of Bulgarians of attempting to dictate to the majority what to do.
“A whole week in front of you. In front of you, of the cameras, the parliamentary groups and the IT experts to sit down and clear all doubts in the flash [memory card], the code [of the machines]. They have their suspicions about the paper, and we about the code. We have four years to rule so I am absolutely in favour of one week in front of cameras,” Borissov said on November 20 at a press conference broadcasted on Facebook.
In a joint statement, Change Continues and Democratic Bulgaria said they would be ready to restart dialogue if the “paper coalition’ gives up the changes.