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Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In November the country held a presidential election. The Central Election Commission (CEC) did not report any major election irregularities, and most political commentators considered the election free and fair. Transparency International Bulgaria reported that nearly 77 percent of violation reports involved bad organization, nearly 10 percent involved controlled and corporate voting, and approximately 1 percent involved vote buying. The organization attributed the violations to poor work by the electoral committees and attempts by political parties to influence voter preferences. Migration from the Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan was a central theme of the campaign. Most candidates expressed the need for Bulgaria to improve border security and some expressed reluctance to accept refugees, but there was no overt racist or extremist rhetoric.

In parliamentary elections in 2014, eight parties passed the 4 percent threshold for representation in the National Assembly. The final report of the election observation mission of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the OSCE on the elections, released in January 2015, stated that “fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly were respected” and that a new method of appointing the election commission, greater involvement of civil society, and public support by the interim government contributed to inclusiveness and public engagement. It also remarked that a new election law provided a good foundation for democratic elections, although several previous ODIHR recommendations remained unaddressed. The report also observed that “widespread and pervasive accusations of vote-buying, controlled voting and other election irregularities, from all sides, marred the campaign and negatively affected the public, confidence in the integrity of the process.”

The law prohibits campaigning in languages other than Bulgarian. ODIHR has repeatedly noted that this requirement as well as the absence of official voter information in minority languages limited the ability of ethnic minority groups to understand election rules and to participate effectively in the election process. In 2015 the CEC imposed a fine on the Movement for Rights and Freedoms party leader at the time, Lyutvi Mestan, for speaking in Turkish during the local election campaign, but the Momchilgrad Regional Court subsequently reversed the CEC decision.

In October the National Assembly abolished the limit on the number of polling stations that could be opened abroad during elections, but only in EU countries. The National Assembly had passed earlier in July amendments to the Electoral Code imposing a limit of 35 polling stations which could be opened in any one foreign country, but abolished some of the limits following protests and online petitions against the amendment.

NGOs reported that address registration laws limited the ability of Roma occupying illegal housing to obtain identity cards, which in turn restricted their ability to register for and vote in elections.

The ODIHR report noted there were no high-level prosecutions for vote buying, which contributed to a sense of impunity and a lack of accountability. A national representative survey in February showed that 10 percent of the votes in the 2015 local elections were bought or otherwise controlled. In the first six months of the year, prosecutors filed 125 cases and pursued 99 prosecutions, and the courts convicted 110 persons of election-related violations. During the presidential election and national referendum campaign in November, the prosecution service stated it had received more than 230 reports of violations aimed at committing election fraud, but dismissed 170 of them. It opened 13 cases into vote buying and document fraud.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law requires a political party to have at least 2,500 members to register officially. Even though the constitution does not allow for the establishment of political parties along ethnic lines, the prohibition did not weaken the role of some ethnic minorities in the political process, and a number of parties represented various ethnic minority groups. During the year some National Assembly members abandoned their party affiliation without losing their seats.

Participation of Women and Minorities: There were no laws or customary practices that prevented women from participating in political life on the same basis as men. Women occupied 46 of 240 seats (19.2 percent) in parliament. While the ethnic Turkish minority enjoyed fair representation, Roma were underrepresented, particularly in appointed leadership positions. Ethnic Turks, Roma, and Pomaks (descendants of Slavic Bulgarians who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule) held elected positions at the local level.

As of October, the Commission for Protection against Discrimination was reviewing a discrimination case against the mayor of Kyustendil, Petar Paunov, who prohibited residents of the Romani Iztok neighborhood from participating in a 2015 local referendum, asserting that the vote-buying reputation of Roma would discredit the results.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future