The Bulgarian Election System Needs a Real Change

The proposed amendments in the Bulgarian Election code will not address the real problems. A majority voting electoral system cannot eliminate the problem with distrust in political parties, low turnout, unrepresentative, corrupted and dysfunctional public institutions.

The results of the national referendum held in Bulgaria on 6 November 2016 confirmed public expectations for major changes in the Electoral system that will implement solutions for better representation, greater responsibility of politicians and increased civic participation.

A kind of political cartel

The current rules make it possible for a well-developed, adopted and practiced system of relations between business, party cliques, local and national government officials, sociological agencies, media aimed at manipulation of public opinion, election campaign and electoral outcomes control in favour of a few parties. These status quo parties have embedded in government institutions a kind of political cartel serving mafia schemes for abuse of public resources.

The proposed electoral system of majority voting with an absolute majority in two rounds will lead to an even greater representation deficit in our political system due to the large wasted votes. It will be possible for a political party to get more votes across the country and finally get a smaller number of mandates. Majority systems will add a new risk of manipulating the election result – by electoral boundaries determination. The majority voting will lead to spending more financial resources and even more buying votes. A more effective approach to reflect voters’ personal preferences into the election result, without leaving significant political groups without representation, is a modification of the proportional electoral system or the introduction of a mixed electoral system.

The so-called “German” system

Our preferences are for the so-called “German” system where the voter is voting with two ballots. One vote is for a direct candidate, who ought to receive a plurality vote in their election district.  The second vote is to elect a party list in each region. Half of the parliament is then filled with candidates that won their electoral districts by the first votes and the other half by candidates from the party lists.

We consider it reasonable and expedient to seek solutions that will compensate some typical distortions of majoritarian systems: the votes of the unsuccessful candidates not to be lost, but added to the votes for the party lists; to hold a second round if no candidate has received an absolute majority of the votes on the first round.

Very serious attention should be paid to the process of determining the geographical boundaries of electoral areas – how and by which authority this process to be carried out. One possibility is to assign a collective body outside the executive, for example the Central Electoral Commission.

The problems will continue to exist

At the same time, along with the change in the electoral system, politicians have to find solutions to a number of significant issues in organizing, conducting, controlling the electoral process and election campaigns. Each of the last elections in Bulgaria reveals significant issues that are questioning the fairness of the elections. Such are: Significant scale of purchased and the controlled vote; Limited access to media – practically fully paid, including access to public media; Misuse of sociological surveys to influence public opinion; Systematically conducted negative campaigns by a media group towards election participants; Irregularities in the work of District Election Commissions, including incorrectly counting ballots and filling in protocols.

These problems cannot be eliminated solely by changing the type of electoral system. They will continue to exist and distort the outcome of the elections.

The author is Chair of the Board and Programme Director – Political and Legal Research of the Institute for European European Strategies and Practices (IESP) in Sofia. The IESP is contributing to the expert and broad public discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of the main alternatives. IESP efforts for research, comparative analysis, expressing positions and statements, drafting amendments to the Election code are oriented towards promoting the positives of mixed parallel system, together with implementation of machine and distant electronic voting, and various other solutions, concerning the administration of the election process, control and transparency of campaign funding, access to media etc.