Dame Audrey Glover: Even Politicians Are Getting Tired of Bulgaria's Elections
An interview of Novinite.com with Dame Audrey Glover, Head of the OSCE/ODIHR limited election observation mission sent to Bulgaria for the early parliamentary elections held October 5, 2014.
Ambassador Audrey Glover is a human rights lawyer from the United Kingdom. While she was a legal adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, among other areas of work, she advised departments on human rights issues and was the UK agent before the European Commission and Court of Human Rights. She was seconded by the FCO to Warsaw as the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) from 1994 -1997. After that she headed the UK Delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission from 1998 to 2003. This is the fourteenth Election Observation that she has headed for the ODIHR. Audrey sits on the boards of various NGOs and charities in the UK including the British Institute of Human Rights, the Prison Reform Trust, Gender Aspects of Peace and Security GAPS) and Electoral Reform International Services (ERIS).
Ambassador Glover, you mentioned this year's elections in Bulgaria were very important due to the new Electoral Code. At the same this mission is different from the one during the last election, is has about 200 observers less and is more limited in scope. Why?
This is a limited election observation mission. This was decided by the needs assessment mission that came from the ODIHR/OSCE earlier, in the year before we came, at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Needs assessment missions are part of the methodology of the OSCE. And over the years they have decided, by talking to interlocutors in countries and finding exactly what the situation is, whether you need full-blown election observation missions with short-term observers as well or smaller election observation like this one. We have long-term observers who have been deployed around the country, but there are no short-term observers, so we've had no systematic observation of polling stations on election day. That basically is the difference, that short-term observers come just before election day, observe polling day and then shortly afterwards leave. But that was what was decided as a result of the needs assessment team talking to people in this country - authorities, civil society, etc.
You've headed missions in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Albania... Is Bulgaria different anyhow in terms of what you observed?
We never compare one country with another, because they are all so different. History, composition, even geographical territory - it all makes a difference, so it's totally unfair to compare one country with another.
However, if we can compare at least different election cycles within the country: this is the eighth time that a mission of the OSCE is here. How can the election processes over the years be compared? Has anything changed for the better or for the worse?
Certainly, there have been changes to your Electoral Code as a result of the election observation mission last year, 2013. But there are certainly still some recommendations we make where things haven't been changed and nothing has been done, for example in relation to the minority language, Bulgarian being not only the official language, but also the language used in an election. We have been making recommendations that that could be looked at again since 2005. So that's quite a lot of time we have been suggesting there should be changes to that law. And also in relation to vote-buying as well; since 2009, when that first came to light, we have been advocating that the authorities here should take measures. We also notice what changes were made to the media packages in the Electoral code as a result of our recommendations earlier. Also the reduction of signers and supporters independent candidates needed. There were some changes made about the complaints and appeals. So, certain changes have taken place. But there are others that haven't.
Speaking of minority rights and mother tongue campaigning, how do you think that the prospective introduction of mother tongue campaigning would fit in with the current failure of the government to integrate certain minorities? Because critics say that if mother tongue is introduced for campaigning, minorities would even slip further away in terms of communication with the state.
I think it's important for minorities to understand what the various platforms are and the different candidates have. If there are a group of people living in a country who are citizens of the country, and there's an election coming up, you need to know what the issues are. I think it's important that if they don't, for one reason or another, totally understand the language of the country, that they should be able to have the possibility to hear what individual candidates' platforms are and to understand what is going on. A lot of the information about how to use the preferential vote for example - they need to be told in their own language so they can understand what to do and how to do it. So there are a lot of issues around an election and the whole electoral process as well as the political platforms that require a need to be explained to people and if it's done in their own tongue, it makes it much easier for them to participate.
Did you observe any other violations of minority rights along the electoral process?
I think it's mainly the use of language that we have noticed in the campaign. I don't know if anything specific turned up on E-day, we haven't got all our report in yet.
The interim government that assumed office on August 6 was commissioned the task to prepare the election. Do you find anything specific in the electoral environment as a result of this cabinet's effort?
Well, they did try to be inclusive while looking at the whole electoral process. And of course, the Ministry of Interior was charged with having a hotline and also looking at various people who were under surveillance for vote-buying and selling. It was very good to begin with, there was certainly something there initially that gave one hope there would be interest shown by authorities in the whole election process. I think they tried to do something initially. The Supreme Administrative Court coped very well with the complaints because they had a lot to do, but they managed to get through them all on time, so they were working well too. But perhaps, you know, it was not quite enough to give the election the push that it needed.
More specifically, what went wrong?
It's just this disappointment of the voters overall. You've had a lot of elections recently, three in eighteen months, which is an awful lot. Even politicians were getting just a bit tired of elections. Also they spent a lot of money presumably on the European election. So: lack of money, lack of time, lack of interest and just literal general fatigue. And people here simply think, "we'll just keep having elections with the same people coming back." So I think that is one of the problems that you have here now, you need a little break from elections, perhaps. But this is also one of the things we notice quite a lot and is pervading vote-buying and selling. You have these controlled-voting people losing their jobs if they don't vote in a particular way, or people's debts will be paid if they vote in a particular way, and all this sort of irregularities in areas where people reading and listening to what's happening are a bit fed up, because they see time and again you have this manipulation of the vote in one way or another. This is what makes people feel there is no change and there will not be an attempt at any change. There is strength and energy there, but I think it has to be driven in the right way.
Speaking in general terms, not just about the case of Bulgaria, what is the thing that you believe should be done to tackle strongholds of parties where voters tend to vote for a certain party? What is the first measure a government can take to address this?
I think that's quite a difficult issue to tackle insofar as a country itself has to choose what particular form its democracy is going to take: whether or not to have preferential voting for example, that's much for a government to decide, not for anyone else. Being a lawyer, I strongly believe in the implementation of laws. If you have laws, it is very important they should be implemented and authorities should go after people who they consider acting illegally. If that comes into your picture of "strongholds" in various areas, then I think that it's important for authorities to operate properly and if there's any wrongdoing going on, it should be investigated and followed.
On Sunday we saw the first example of experimental machine voting in a general election. Most national media outlets said it should be ready to be introduced in a few years' time. Do you think Bulgaria is ready for machine voting?
There is no reason why not, but there has to be a lot of public discussion about it. You need to look very carefully what the machines you are going to use in terms of software and hardware. You have to also have criteria as to why you want to have any form of new voting. What is it to do, what is its object? There is no point in having it because you see two or three countries in the European Union who have it. Then you have to be absolutely sure your machinery is independently verified as being able to produce what you want. In relation to voting you also need to be absolutely sure of the secrecy and that there is now way the programs could be misapplied during the time they are being used to suddenly make a huge number of votes go in another direction.
But the most important thing of all is voter education, because you need to make sure that the individuals understand and know what the system is. There is no point in introducing the system if people don't know what happens to their vote. You need to involve the general population and explain to them very carefully and see that they understand. In some countries these new voting technologies work extremely well, in others they don't, for instance we certainly don't have it in my country and I can't imagine people being so happy with pressing a screen as they are with making a cross in a piece of paper. But I think it's important to realize you don't have to do it. It's not essential, you should concentrate on the system that suits you. They had machines in Norway, I think, and stopped using them. You don't have to have it by the next election. The important thing is that the population has confidence in it, because without that you are not going to have a very successful use of it anyway. So you might just as well make sure that they're happy, that would be my advice. Always remember your voter.
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