Check against delivery / Vérification à l'écoute

22nd Session of the Congress of Local and regional Authorities of the Council of Europe
Strasbourg 20 March 2012

Presentation of the draft Report on the Observation of Local elections in Bulgaria (23 October 2011) by Mihkel JUHKAMI, Estonia, (L, EPP/CD)

Mr President, Keith Whitmore,

Ladies and gentlemen,

·         It is a great pleasure for me to be able to present to you today the report and draft recommendation on the observation of the local elections held in Bulgaria on 23 October 2011.

·         I will not go into organisational or technical details of the mission; you can find them in the report, but concentrate on the fundamental points as the observer delegation sees them.

·         It has first to be said that there were also Presidential elections held on the same day which were observed by our colleagues in the Parliamentary Assembly. It has also to be said that the second round of these elections on 30 October 2011 was not observed by the Congress.

·         The first preliminary conclusion of our delegation was that these elections largely have met European standards and were conducted in an overall calm and orderly manner. We were particularly pleased to note that there was a vibrant and competitive campaign, during which contestants behaved – mostly – in a responsible manner.

·         We also welcomed that the rules and procedures governing the conduct of elections were consolidated in one single Election Code and that the Bulgarian authorities had amended this code in response to recommendations made by the Venice Commission and OSCE/ODIHR in their Joint Opinion of 21 June 2011 (as requested by the Congress already in December 2010). This was a decisive step towards ensuring the consistency of electoral provisions and thus facilitating their uniform application.

·         However, we identified several fields for improvement which include: the administration of elections, the voting process and practical arrangements, the vote count and related processes as well as the complaints and appeals procedures.

·         I will not detail all the recommendations related to the administration of elections but let me highlight the main problems:

·         Firstly, our delegation pointed to the issue of political balance in the composition of election commissions at all levels and recommended - in line with the expertise offered by the Council of Europe Venice Commission and OSCE/ODIHR - to address this problem. Opposition parties should be included in leadership positions at all levels of the election administration.

·         Secondly, the delegation recognised that the Election Code provided sound provisions on election campaign financing but recommended to strengthen mechanisms, in order to ensure effective enforcement in practice.

·         Thirdly, we insisted on the necessity to improve public trust in counting processes  – both through amendments allowing for recounting of the votes and mechanisms, for example counting commissions, which should prevent fraudulent manipulations (vote-buying) and intimidation. This would be in the interest of enhancing the integrity of the entire process.

·          Finally, the provisions concerning the complaints and appeals system should be also amended.

At the end of my presentation, allow me to stress some points which are -  in my opinion - key for the overall organisation of elections in Bulgaria:

First of all, we acknowledged that the Bulgarian authorities have taken measures to address the scourge of vote-buying and -selling, through its incorporation into the Criminal Code, but we underlined that this issue remained a major obstacle to public confidence in free and fair elections.

This was the reason why the delegation insisted on the need to reinforce public confidence in electoral processes by developing notably training programmes for members of the electoral commissions (on electoral procedures but also ethical behavior) as well as public awareness campaigns for voters prior to elections, in particular among vulnerable groups.

With regard to enhance inclusive processes, the delegation invited the authorities, in line with recommendations by OSCE/ODIHR, to provide persons belonging to minorities with election materials in their mother tongue, in order to enhance the understanding of the processes for all communities.

Finally, we were pleased to see that there is a pluralistic media landscape in Bulgaria and journalists can report freely. However, we regretted that the allocation of free airtime on public broadcasting channels for the elections candidates was not guaranteed in Bulgaria and therefore underlined the need for a legal framework related to the media, in order to guarantee editorial freedom and equitable coverage of the election campaign for all media, thus ensuring a level playing field for all contestants.

Let me conclude by saying that the Congress stands ready to support the Bulgarian authorities in addressing the issues raised by this report.

I thank you for your attention.