The Zero-Sum Game of Bulgaria's Election Rules
Bulgarian lawmakers passed so many changes to the country's election laws in the last couple of weeks that protesters sounded a bit unsure which new rule to slam first.
In a rush to go on holiday, they gave the thumbs up on compulsory voting, introduced restrictions to voting abroad (but dropped some of them later), rejected the creation of a "foreign" constituency representing hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian nationals living outside the country, delayed the introduction of online voting, and set a higher preference threshold for the election of mayors and "local parliament" members.
They also tried to shorten the election campaign to 21, down from 30 days and to ban the announcement of any opinion poll results within the time, two moves where they backtracked.
As these lines are being typed, it is not yet clear whether the version adopted after long political bargaining is final in any way, with the President possibly vetoing some texts or the Constitutional court overturning others, or both.
What is worth remembering while in limbo was that every party that is somewhat involved in the government or inherently crucial to governance got something and lost something.
Political leaders made sure anyone's gain were tantamount their allies or opponents' loss.
A classical zero-sum game.
Compulsory voting was introduced simply because nationalists from the Patriotic Front, a coalition that backs the government, argued it would reduce the influence that the DPS, a liberal and ethnic Turk-dominated party, has on the political system through its "disciplined" electorate.
Turnout in "mixed regions" (where ethnic Bulgarians live together with Bulgarian Turks or Roma, or where any of the latter two constitutes a majority) has traditionally been high among the DPS's electorate. Their opponents have reiterated over the years that only higher voting activity could mitigate the influence of a party often referred to as more of a "corporate" structure than a the face of minority rights advocacy.
The PF also wanted sanctions for those who did not cast a ballot and, subsequently, deregistration from electoral rolls. It insisted on a ban on all polling stations abroad that are not located in diplomatic missions, also claiming (adhering to that very same DPS issue) it would curb votes from Turkey, where tens of thousands of people normally cast ballots every year. Nationalist (but no only) parties have claimed over the year that the process of voting in Turkey is always accompanied by irregularities.
Ironically, even though the opposition party DPS publicly voiced its disagreement with the restrictions, they also bring it some relief as a new party called DOST, and presided by the DPS ex-head Lyutvi Mestan, is threatening to gather much support among voters living in Turkey – and, to make matters worse for the DPS, reportedly enjoy more sympathy from Turkey (not that this could affect the election result in any way).
So as the DPS suffered a blow from other parties with the implementation of compulsory voting, they also make sure gains of their opponents from DOST might be smaller than expected and that preference voting will not affect their plans for DPS-run local administrations (two MPs were expelled in 2014 for having rallied for their own preference number, in a party known for "discipline" and adherence to ticket order).
Nationalist PF, on the other hand, can firmly say it has talked political leaders into at least part of its proposals, vowing to continue the fight for electoral reform if given more terms in Parliament (or why not a term in government after the next election?) and playing its usual “two-face” role of both a party supporting the cabinet (but not in it) and an opposition when necessary.
The Reformist Bloc, the junior coalition partner in Bulgaria's government, can say it ushered in online voting, which complies with much of its electorate's demands (shown in a referendum last year) – it purports to take special care of young and educated voters. Despite agreeing to a delay in the implementation of online voting – and even proposing it itself (a step it had earlier objected, maintaining it should be enforced as soon as possible), and witnessing the introduction of compulsory elections which they were firmly against (with the possibility it could also decrease their own electoral weight), it also points to its role as the main critic of “Draconian” measures such as the blanket ban on polling stations out of embassies abroad, deregistration for Bulgarian citizens who missed a single election, and (then the reverse proposal) “incentives” for those who did cast a ballot.
For Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his conservative GERB party, which is the senior coalition partner, the win is more subtle. Borisov has proved his constant reiteration of the “stability, infrastructure and EU funds absorption” mantra, in combination with an excellent organization of party structures and the simultaneous EU growth recovery (that also results in Bulgaria picking up, albeit modestly), can help him secure victory in any election – at least for now. What he needed with the amendment was to make sure each important party is left satisfied so he can continue to build up his image of a “unifying” figure – one of the few things this Parliament of eight (or more?) factions has been hinging on since being sworn in.
There was also a common gain everyone in the legislature shared: by rejecting the long-promised “foreign” constituency it made sure it could keep the status quo of automatically pegging votes from abroad to constituencies. Up until now this electorate has often been decisive, with several hundred votes sometimes giving a lead to an MP candidate.
Imagine now the following election arrangements: compulsory voting that involves not only all Bulgarians living in the country, but also hundreds of thousands abroad, whose vote is represented by a separate constituency, with no barriers to either "paper" or "online" voting which makes it impossible for one to give the excuse that they had no time.
Yes, this idea is pure utopia; but it was part of the draft. Had it been passed, it would have affected the political landscape – for the better or for the worse is difficult to say, but it could have been unpredictable.
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