Congress Election Observation Mission to Bulgaria

20 to 24 October 2011

Press Conference on Monday, 24 October 2011

Statement by the Head of Delegation/Rapporteur, Mihkel JUHKAMI, Estonia

Dear ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to this Press Conference of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe. You may know, the Congress is the European institution in charge for local democracy,decentralisation and territorial self-government in the 47 Council of Europe member states.  In this capacity, we were invited by the Bulgarian authorities to observe yesterday’s elections of the mayors and councils of municipalities as well as the mayors of settlements with over 350 inhabitants. The elections of the Bulgarian President and Vice-President – taking place on the same day – were monitored by our colleagues from the Parliamentary Assembly and you will hear their report immediately after this briefing.

Before I speak about our preliminary conclusions in respect of the local part of the Election Day, please allow me some remarks on the composition, programme and mandate of the Congress delegation. This delegation – which included 13 members of 10 European countries – arrived on 20 October and held meetings on Friday with representatives of the Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works, the Central Election Commission and members of the National Association of Municipalities of the Republic of Bulgaria. We also exchanged views with members of the Limited Election Observation Mission of OSCE/ODIHR.

Saturday morning was dedicated to an extensive briefing with the expert from Transparency International and afterwards the six teams of the Congress were deployed to different regions of Bulgaria – Sofia; the environs of Sofia including the municipality of Ihtiman; Plovdiv/Katunitsa/Asenovgrad; Cerven Brjag/Lukovit; Blagoevgrad and Bourgas. In these regions, the members of the Congress delegation continued with information meetings with candidates from a variety of parties and lists. Between five and fifty contestants took part in these meetings – and I can say that this was an occasion to be informed in a comprehensive and direct manner on the situation and real problems at the grassroots.

As we are all elected representatives in the municipalities of our home countries – mayors, councillors, members of regional parliaments – we appreciated very much this frank and direct exchange of views with Bulgaria’s local politicians. This is exactly the added value of Congress election observation missions which are done on a pragmatic peer-to-peer basis, between local politicians.

On Election Day itself, the members of the Congress delegation observed the vote in their respective regions and visited as from 6 am in the morning approximately  100 polling stations throughout the country. 

As a first preliminary conclusion we can say that these elections were carried out - largely - in a calm and orderly manner and on the basis of a solid legal framework for democratic elections. In general, electoral staff were well aware of the regulations and voters understood the procedures. Competition between political contestants was vivid and – with the exception of some few incidents – marked by democratic conduct.

 The new Election Code for Bulgaria which was adopted earlier this year and qualified by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission as providing a sound legal basis for the conduct of democratic elections brought some new regulations and so the electoral staff needed some time to adapt. The Congress delegation, in agreement with OSCE/ODIHR, believes that there is still room for improvement – for example, to allow minorities to use their mother tongue during the campaign or in respect of short deadlines for appeals of election commission decisions. Also, there was the administrative problem of the unbalanced composition of election commissions at all levels and the dominance of the ruling party in the leadership.

It is a long time since two important elections were held simultaneously in Bulgaria. The way in which the conduct of these elections was affected by this situation, has to be examined by the Bulgarian authorities. Whatever the cause, the Congress delegation members observed some organisational shortcomings which need to be addressed  – first and foremost, the huge crowds in front of the polling stations in urban areas, in fact, as from midday on. This urged the Central Election Commission, at the end of Election Day, to extend the opening hours of the polling stations.

Another organisational issue is the equipment in polling stations for handicapped people. Yes, there were some efforts undertaken by the authorities – but the situation is still unsatisfactory throughout the country.

 According to our interlocutors, local themes generated more interest among the population than the presidential vote and we as local politicians are very pleased. At the same time, in the media, the local elections were clearly overshadowed by the presidential competition.

As representatives of local and regional authorities, we do regret this situation. And we are also not happy that all campaign coverage in the media  was – de facto – paid for, at least in the private sector. This created an unequal playing field for candidates without substantial financial means and had negative consequences for many local actors.

Another matter of concern for the members of the Congress delegation are reports we received in respect of vote buying and controlled vote - which concerns mostly vulnerable groups, notably the Roma people, in small communities and rural areas.

The fact that vote buying and selling, according to the law, is now a criminal offence in Bulgaria, is highly appreciated by the Congress.

We also welcome the pilot test to count the ballots in a regional counting center -  which was carried out in Beboshevo.  We can only encourage the Bulgarian authorities to further implement such models in order to improve the situation. According to a recent survey carried out by Transparency International, 12 % of the population in Bulgaria is ready to be paid for the vote – by money or tangible goods. But I think society in Bulgaria cannot be satisfied with this deplorable state of political awareness!

The members of the Congress delegation therefore strongly believe that concrete programmes, in particular at grassroots level, are necessary to ensure the integrity of the election process and to increase public confidence in local authorities and in election processes. These programmes have to include vulnerable groups who may sell their votes for different economic and societal reasons, as well as those who may buy these votes.  

There is also room for improvement to avoid manipulation, exertion of pressure and an underlying climate of intimidation, in particular in small rural communities.

We from the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities have a specific responsibility for the local and regional elected representatives. Together with our European partners, the Congress stands ready to continue to help the Bulgarian authorities to tackle these problems in order to further strengthen local self-government, decentralisation and democracy – which start from the grassroots.

Thank you very much for your attention.