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Observer Mission for the Bulgarian General Election (May 10-13, 2013)

At the invitation of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), more than 80 PES observers from 20 European countries followed the Bulgarian parliamentary election. They came in addition to international observers from the OSCE / ODIHR and Transparency International.


1 General information

The voting system combines proportional voting (209 seats with a 4% hurdle) and first-past-the-post (31 seats throughout the country).


The political context was tense: demonstrations and even immolations in February, resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (GERB, right-of-centre), Transition Government under Marin Raykov. The May elections were called before end of term and the campaign was virulent, feeding fears of widespread fraud. On the eve of the election, 350,000 ballots (5% of the electorate!) were secured by the police in the printing house of a GERB crony. An investigation is underway to clarify the nature and extent of the fraud.


45 parties presented candidates. Among them were:

  • BSP, a member of PES and successor of the Communist Party in power before 1990;
  • DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedom), originally the party of the Turkish minority (about 10% of the population), which has expanded its electoral base and is now part of the Liberal group (ALDE) in the European Parliament;
  • a fragmented and chronically unstable right wing, its last avatar being Citizens for the European future of Bulgaria (GERB), which is openly flirting with populism;
  • Ataka (“Attack”), a violently anti-Turkish far-right party which regularly gets between 7 and 10% of the vote in Parliamentary elections and has had around twenty MPs for 8 years.


The official result is available on the Central Electoral Commission’s (CEC) website.

Turnover 51.33 % (2009: 60.60 % )
Party/coalition Result (in %) Change/2009(in % points) Seats Change/2009


– 9


– 20

BSP and allies


+ 10


+ 44



– 3


– 1



– 2


+ 2



+ 4


– 25

* No other party has surpassed the 4% hurdle

GERB remains the largest party in Bulgaria, but it experiences a sharp decline, and since the three other parties officially ruled out any coalition with it, it seems doomed to go into opposition. BSP registered a strong growth, without overtaking GERB, and a possible BSP-DPS coalition would have only 120 seats out of 240: the risk of a blockade is obvious.


2 Observers’ report

We arrived on Thursday (Rhonda) and Friday night (Emmanuel). On Saturday morning, a briefing was organized for all observers by (among others) Kristian Vigenin, BSP Secretary for International Relations and Ventsislav Karadzhov, member of the CEC.

For those who had already read the briefing documents sent out before, the meeting was a bit redundant but it allowed a clarification of goals and making contact with comrades of several other socialist and social-democratic parties.

Then observers travelled to their assigned districts; for us, it was Lovech (a city of 50,000), 150 km east of Sofia. Whereas Emmanuel was inexperienced in the business, Rhonda’s experience within the Trade Union movement and as a Political Activist proved invaluable on Election Day.

On site, we were accompanied by Elena Kazandzhieva, who served as our guide and interpreter throughout the weekend and was joined by her brother Stivian on Sunday afternoon.

The voting process

The day began at 6:45 a.m. witnessing the opening of a polling station in the historic centre. Afterwards we went to the campaign headquarters of the BSP, made acquaintance with the Mayor of Lovech (BSP), the father of our interpreter; the day continued in several district polling stations, within a radius of 50 km around Lovech fifteen in total before returning to the seat of the BSP at 8:00 p.m.

Overall, we found a properly functioning electoral process: identification badges, polling booths up to standard, no display of posters near polling stations, fair conditions for voters’ decision-making. Our accreditations were not systematically checked, they were sometimes photocopied; at one polling station, it was required that only one PES observer should be present, in another one, the chairman was struggling to hide his annoyance. Most of the time, the local electoral commission seemed impressed, especially as our interpreter introduced us as “European representatives”, without elaborating.

However, there were some questionable cases:

  • Village of Borima: GERB posters in close proximity to the polling station which rather strangely was in what looked like a former Coffee Shop  , no one not even the Chair of the commission wearing an ID badge.The voting booth was next to the table of the commission (the venue was far too small). Explanations of the chairman: “We have always done it like that here!” We reminded him of the rules he had signed up to as an employee and informed him that we would be making a comprehensive report, as we did. But would this really affect the results? Across Lovech district, the BSP coalition (list 5) finished first (with a short advance), but at Borima, the DPS lay way ahead: list 40 (DPS) = 256 votes, list five (BSP) = 73 votes, list 15 (GERB) = 61 votes. More than the GERB posters, it seems that the ethnic factor was at work: the village has an important Turkish community.
  • Roma neighbourhoods: Large numbers of voters are registered within this community (800-1,000 per polling station). There was a lot of activity around the stations but we did not witness anything untoward – a slight nervousness in the first station at the school put down to the fact we were the first observers there. Turnout in Roma communities was rather low, whereas it is traditionally high. At Alexandrovo (station I: BSP 91, DPS 62, GERB 55 out of 900 registered voters; station II: BSP 92, DSP 32, GERB 30 out of 743 registered voters), the results seem to suggest that if there was fraud, it happened by intimidating voters into abstention or by excessive invalidation of ballots during the counting process rather than by massive vote buying. Nevertheless, when we were present, we could find no irregularity inside the polling stations, which were run within the remit.

Sunday night was chaotic: at BSP campaign headquarters, we were first told, contrary to the briefing, that electoral law, which explicitly mentions the presence of a single observer for each party, also was to apply to PES observers and this excluded the simultaneous presence of Rhonda, Emmanuel, and our interpreter during counting. We felt we had no choice but not to participate, as we were unable to follow operations in a language and alphabet that both of us did not master.

This experience was different in other constituencies.

Around 10:00 p.m., we were asked to intervene in challenged votes at Umarevtsi 10 km from Lovech. When we arrived, tension in the room was palpable, however our intervention was gratefully accepted. To us the challenged ballots were all perfectly legible, the cross (as an X) being clearly visible, even if it was sometimes a little shaky. Out of the questioned ballot (all validated by us), 6 expressed a vote for BSP and one for GERB. The official record confirms that the result was tight, BSP list (no. 5) finishing barely ahead of GERB’s (67 to 64).

In our experience in Lovech there were only few glaring problems. This however was not the case elsewhere: vote buying was observed and reported. In Sliven PES observers were even taken in by the police under the pretence that a camera had been installed in the glasses of one of them and he had supposedly filmed the voting process! Such paranoia would make one smile if our comrades hadn’t had a very unpleasant and somewhat scary time… Fortunately, they were eventually released and were able to return to Sofia the next day.



This observation mission, like the OSCE’s, confirms the deep roots of Bulgarian democracy despite difficulties and tensions (see also the OSCE/ODIHR report). We could feel many times that the commission members were impressed, but also flattered by the presence of international observers.

Within the limits of our observations, the overall objectivity was generally guaranteed: the different parties were represented in local electoral commissions, the minutes of the tallying are available online.

As for the BSP comrades, their work was outstanding: the welcome warm, transfers smooth. While they both referred to teamwork a special mention to both Nikola Mitov in Sofia and Elena Kazandzhieva in Lovech who were constantly helpful, excellent translations allowed to overcome the language barrier, accommodation, meals, transport exceeded by far our expectations and stereotypes about the Balkans.

However, it will be asked with some maliciousness what the premier purpose of our mission was: our intervention was welcome when it could benefit the party, but it was also sometimes politely avoided; BSP may not want international observers watching too closely the details of operations in polling stations it controls. But this is a mere assumption, confirmed by no material evidence, whereas we actually did find (minor) irregularities to the detriment of BSP. In that respect, our report should be compared to other experiences, such as David Eade’s (UK), Yannick Haan’s and Andreas Herrmann’s (both in German) or the synthesis prepared by PS comrades around Christian Castagna.

For PES as a whole, the experience seems positive and it should be renewed wherever suspicion of massive electoral fraud arises. Perhaps one could prepare jointly at PES level the organization of the mission, so that the autonomy of the observers is a little wider. But this freedom of action also depends largely on each observer’s experience.

Finally, such missions are vital to all of us as European citizens, enabling us to become aware of the extremely unequal living standards on our continent. We saw first hand the sometimes disastrous condition of infrastructure and buildings, as well as the gap between cities and villages, town centres and suburbs, capital city and countryside. As for Roma neighbourhoods, one enters another world that seems to be governed by different laws. We went there on occasionally unpaved roads leading to dilapidated public housing and were at once perceived as foreigners. Beyond economics, there is a tremendous amount of work ahead of us all – not only in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe – to achieve integration of Roma. And deportation of Bulgarian (or Romanian) Roma from France to their country of origin is certainly no contribution to that integration or to the building of a more social Europe.


Rhonda Donaghey, Irish Labour Party

Emmanuel Faure, Parti Socialiste (Berlin)/SPD (Berlin)


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