Category Archives: Bulgaria

“Can I have your signature?” – Comparing requirements for registering presidential candidates in Europe

Every so often, I receive a message from colleagues asking whether I know of a comparative overview on a particular aspect of presidential politics. I have previously written blog posts with such overviews on presidential term length and possibilities of re-election, salaries of West European and Central East European presidents, and the question of who acts as head of state when presidents are incapacitated or resign. Three weeks ago, I received another enquiry asking about the number of signatures required to register as a presidential candidate in popular presidential election – prompted by the seemingly high number of 200,000 signatures in Romania (notably, this threshold also applies to European elections, a fact highlighted by the extra-parliamentary “Democracy and Solidarity Party – DEMOS” earlier this year).

Electoral laws often specify various requirements for candidates, such as age, no criminal record, residency etc, but these all relate to the candidacy of a person as such, not its registration with authorities. To register one’s candidacy for president, collecting a certain number of supporting signatures arguably presents the most common requirement (closely followed by making a – often non-refundable – deposit to the Electoral Commission). Collecting signatures helps to prove that a candidate is a serious contender and can attract at least a minimum of support. In this post, I hence provide an overview and assessment of the signature requirements for presidential candidates in Europe and beyond.

The Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters of the Venice Commission (an advisory body to the Council of Europe on matters of Constitutional Law) states that “The law should not require collection of the signatures of more than 1% of voters in the constituency concerned” (Part I, Chapter 1.3, point ii) – hence, for popular presidential elections signatures of no more than 1% of all registered voters in the whole country should be required for registration. Overall, all but three European nations adhere to this recommendation, albeit still showing considerable variation.

On average, a little less than half a percent of registered voters (0.454%) is required to register a candidacy as presidential candidate in European semipresidential and presidential republics. Requirements range from 0.016% (i.e. 100) of registered voters in Cyprus to 1.5% in Montenegro, yet the median of 0.396% (BiH Republika Srbska) illustrates that most countries can be found towards the bottom of the range. Three countries stand out because they do not foresee any kind of public signature collection: Ukraine abolished any kind of signature requirement in 2009 (it had previously been 500,000 in 2004 and 1m in 1999).  In contrast, presidential hopefuls in France and Ireland need to collect support from public officials – 500 signatures of elected public officials in France, and nomination by 20 members of parliament or four county or city councils in Ireland. Four other countries also have rules for the nomination of candidates by legislators – such rules generally benefit established parties.

Romania indeed belongs to countries with the highest signature requirements in European comparison, yet it is still surpassed by Montenegro. While Romania only exceeds the Council of Europe recommendation by 0.1% (ca. 17,300 signatures), this margin would already be enough to register a candidate in Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, or Portugal! The Montenegrin electoral law actually specifies that signatures equal to 1.5% of registered need to be collected in order to register a candidate for the presidency (and has subsequently been the subject of repeated criticism by the Venice Commission and the OSCE).

What do these numbers mean for parties, candidates and competition in popular presidential elections? Generally, higher signature requirements increase entry costs for political newcomers and can be a serious impediment to democratic competition. Candidates nominated by political parties can rely on established organisations for the collection of signature (often under a tight deadline) as well as for the financing of such an exercise – even in smaller countries with lower requirements, a small army of volunteers is needed. Given that signatures can later be ruled invalid for various reasons, candidates actually need to collect more signatures than the official number to prepared for this eventuality. Regulations that allow (or restrict) the nomination of candidates by a handful of members of parliament (e.g. in the Czech Republic, Ireland, or Slovakia), also benefit established parties and provide obstacles to independents and newcomers. Nevertheless, a greater number of candidates in direct presidential elections does not automatically equal a better or more democratic process. In the prevalent two-round run-off systems (only Ireland used preference voting and Iceland a plurality run-off), a highly fragmented candidate field in the first round can easily lead to the elimination of a Pareto-winner as well as voter dissatisfaction if a large proportion of voters do not see their preferred candidate advance to the second round.

When it comes to signatures for registering a presidential candidate, there is no objective “magic number”; yet, when looking at the various requirements across Europe, it would likely be around 0.4% of registered voters.

Bulgaria – President Radev is shaping a political alternative

Russian President Vladimir Putin receives pro-Russian counterpart Rumen Radev. On this occassion, President Radev declared that the purpose of the visit is “to reinstate the dialogue at the highest level after a multi-year interruption”. Source: novinite.com

Bulgarian president Rumen Radev is increasingly feeling the constitutional constraints over his ability to influence the politics of his country. In the last year of cohabitation, the ambitious politician has accentuated his anti-governmental rhetoric and showed his willingness to fight the limited role he is offered by the institutional set-up of Bulgaria. He is efficiently chipping away at the popularity of prime-minister Boyko Borissov and the ruling party GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria). However, the independent Radev’s measured potential for electoral success is restricted by the absence of a supporting party. The following text is an overview of the alternatives offered by president Radev to his Bulgarian supporters and the ensuing institutional conflicts he is likely to run into.    

Internal Politics: An All – Male Fight Club

The Bulgarian president is directly elected, cautiously placing Bulgaria among semi-presidential regimes (Elgie,1999). However, the Constitution of Bulgaria clearly states that the country is a republic with a parliamentary form of government (Constitution, Art. 1).This puts the Bulgarian president in a weaker institutional position than heads of other semi-presidential republics in the region (Romania, Russia, Slovenia and Ukraine). Faced with such limitations to his own understanding of how much authority the presidential office should provide him, president Rumen Radev is increasingly making the case that he should have increased powers within the state. Most recently, he suggested changing the regime to a presidential republic, concurrently claiming that Bulgarian ‘democracy is jeopardized’.   

President Radev also made use of his institutional powers. In his second year of mandate, he resorted to vetoing Parliament bills seven times (e.g. higher taxes for oldercars, State Property Act).Parliament overturned six such decisions and agreed to strike down the vetoed provisions in just one case. In a different case, he refused to sign a decree that would open the way for the appointment of a new interior minister, which he finally had to accept. This limited effect achieved through the use of constitutional powers has not been sufficient for the ex-Army General Radev, who resorted to intensifying his anti-governmental rhetoric on economic, defense, energy efficiency, anti-corruption, the Macedonian issue and many other subjects. In turn, GERB accused him of waging a ‘political war’.  Prime-minister Borissov retaliated in this game of institutional power politics by announcing that it will be him, not the president, who will address the UN General Assembly in September 2018.  This signified an important change from previous years and a symbolic win for PM Borissov.

President Radev is joined in his opposition to the government by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which also supported his independent run for president. However, Radev distanced himself from the BSP, who continues to fall in the preferences of the Bulgarian electorate and has not proven credible or inspired enough to become an alternative disillusioned citizens might vote for. In the poorest EU country, with a low living standard and the world’s fastest shrinking population (see Figure below), general dissatisfaction with the government’s activity is increasing, providing space for political alternatives.

According to UN Projections, the population of Bulgaria will decrease by 23% by 2050. Source: World Population Prospects – un.org 

As the coalition around prime-minister Borissov shows signs of disunity and references to a possible early election in 2019 become more often, the question remains who is going to benefit from Radev’s high approval ratings.

Bulgarians have a long history of supporting parties built around a charismatic figure. The former king Simeon Saxe- Coburg-Gotha created the National Movement Simeon the Second (NDSV) and became prime minister of the Republic of Bulgaria (2001 -2005).The incumbent prime-minister Boyko Borissov was a popular Chief Secretary of the Ministry of Interior and mayor of Sofia, who used his popularity to established GERB. President Radev may well follow in their footsteps. Nevertheless, as the president of Bulgaria, he is constitutionally prohibited to engage in party politics.Consequently, he will either have to be highly stealthy about his actions and set up a non-partisan support group he could later use, wait until the end of his mandate to engage in new political projects or use the existing major opposition force, BSP, to build an internal alternative to prime-minister Borissov’s GERB.  An increasingly combative stance from Radev while in the presidential office would eventually plunge the country in institutional havoc.

Foreign Affairs: An East – West Balancing Act

Bulgaria is engaged in a traditional dance between the politics of the East, personalised by Russian President Vladimir Putin and those of the West, brought about through membership in the European Union. GERB is seen as a pro-EU force. The EU Commission recently commended some of the progress made in tackling organised crime and corruption (see CVM Progress Report for Bulgaria 2018). Prime Minister Borissov is also generally regarded as a pro-European, who accepted the symbolic benefits of withdrawing from joint Bulgarian – Russian projects, including the Belene Nuclear Power Plant and South Stream Pipeline, at the appeal of the EU.

Earlier in 2018, president Radev was welcomed in Russia, where he met President Vladimir Putin. This marked a rare visit from a post-communist European head of state to Russia. According to official accounts, the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the deepening of economic cooperation between the two states. In a different statement,President Radev also declared that Europe should not interfere with Russian gas supplies to Bulgaria. Since in office, President Radev confirmed his sympathies for a rapprochement with the Russian state, prompting some to consider that Bulgaria could become a Trojan horse state for Russian politics in the EU.  All this adds to his past statements in support of the Russian annexation of Crimea

Conclusion

Mapping the policies and political plans of the Bulgarian president heightened in relevance in 2018. His personal ambitions, combined with his high popularity, increase the possibility of president Rumen Radev to redefine Bulgaria’s internal politics and foreign policy.  

This blog post was written by permanent contributor Veronica Anghel, PhD in collaboration with Teodora Aleksandrova (PhD Candidate, University of Sofia)

Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe

This post summarises the new book by Philipp Köker ‘Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). The book is the inaugural volume in the new series Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics (edited by Robert Elgie and Gianluca Passarelli) and is based on Philipp’s PhD thesis which won the ECPR Jean Blondel PhD Prize 2016.

Presidential powers feature prominently in academic debates. Paradoxically, until now only few scholars have tried to analyse and explain how presidential actually use them. This book tries to fill this gap in the academic literature, but is also rooted in a real-life encounter with presidential activism. As an undergraduate intern in the Polish Sejm I witnessed first-hand the negotiations between President Lech Kaczyński and Gregorz Napieralski, newly elected leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), on blocking an override of the president’s veto of the media law in July 2008.The aim of this book is map and analyse such patterns in the activism of presidents and explain when and why presidents become active and use their powers. Thereby, it focuses on 9 Central and East European democracies (i.e. those that joined the EU in 2004/2007) during the period 1990-2010. Given that their political systems were created during the same, comparatively short period of time, share a common trajectory of development and were confronted with the same challenges, they are particularly suited for analysis. With regards to presidential powers, I concentrate on two of the most prominent presidential powers:

  1. the power to veto legislation and return it to parliament
  2. the appointment and censure of governments and cabinet ministers

The central argument is that presidential activism can best be explained by the institutional structure – including the mode of election – and the political environment, particularly the relative strength and level of consensus between president, parliament and government. Thereby, I argue that popular presidential elections matter fundamentally for presidential activism – directly elected presidents are agents of the public rather than parliament and lack the constraints and potential for punishment faced by their indirectly presidents elected counterparts (which challenges Tavits 2008). Furthermore, presidents should be more active when they find themselves in cohabitation with the government, when parliamentary fragmentation is high, and when the government does not hold a majority in the legislature.

To test these and additional hypotheses, my book uses a nested analysis research design (Lieberman 2005) that combines the statistical analysis of an original cross-section time series data set on the use of presidential vetoes with carefully selected case studies based on numerous elite and expert interviews in four most-different countries. The analysis of presidential activism in government formation and censure is thereby deliberately left for the qualitative analysis as there is no adequate quantitative data yet.

Patterns of Presidential Veto Use in Central and Eastern EuropeMy regression models generally confirms the majority of my hypotheses. In line with the table above, my model results clearly show that presidents used their veto power significantly more often than indirectly elected presidents. Furthermore, presidents were more active during neutral relations with the government and cohabitation and the effects of the governmental and presidential seat shares, too, showed the expected effects. Echoing findings from the study of presidential veto use in the United States, president also vetoed more frequently the more bills were passed by parliament. Based on the predictions of the statistical models, I then select 12 president-cabinet pairings in four countries (Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) for further in-depth analysis. Thereby, I make sure to select both strong/weak and directly/indirectly elected presidents and one pairing per office holder to control for institutional variations and individual presidents.

Presidential Activism in Practice

The in-depth analysis of presidential veto use also confirms my hypotheses and provides strong evidence that the hypothesised mechanisms actually insist. In particular, the mode of presidential election emerged as one of, if not the most important factor in explaining presidential activism. The popular mandate gained through direct elections gave presidents significantly more freedom in their actions but also required them to be more active to ensure their re-election – this was not only confirmed through my interviews with high-ranking presidential advisors but also evidenced by a number of presidents’ public statements. Indirectly elected presidents on the other hand acknowledged their dependence on parliament and therefore used their powers less often as not to interfere in the work of their principal. The relationship between president and government as well as the government’s strength in parliament were equally shown to be key determinants in presidents’ decisions to use their powers. Yet the qualitative also demonstrated that the size of presidents’ support base in parliament only becomes relevant when their party participates in government or when high thresholds are needed to override a veto. In addition, the qualitative analysis suggested an additional explanatory factor for presidential activism not included in my theoretical and statistical models – divisions within and between government parties provided additional opportunities for activism and could explain vetoes under otherwise unfavourable conditions.

My analysis of presidential activism in the appointment and censure of governments then takes a more exploratory approach and covers the entire period of observation (rather than just specific president-cabinet pairings). The results show some support for existing hypotheses in the literature but also call for re-thinking the use of non-partisan cabinet ministers as a proxy for presidential involvement. In particularly, non-partisans were not only often appointed without presidential involvement, but presidents were also more actively involved in placing co-partisans in the cabinet.

Studying Presidential Activism in Central and Eastern Europe and Beyond

Presidents still belong to the group of less-studied political actors. Yet even though countries differ greatly in how much power is vested in the presidency, presidents always possess at least some power and even the least powerful presidents play an important functional and procedural role in their political systems apart from ceremonial duties. Thus, studying presidential politics has a very strong practical relevance for any republican political system.

My book shows that theoretical approaches developed for presidents in other contexts (i.e. mostly the United States) ‘travelled’ almost effortlessly to Central and Eastern Europe. Several mechanisms of effect could be observed irrespective of institutional structure, highlighting the enormous potential of ‘comparative presidential studies’ beyond national contexts. Thus, I hope that my book is – together with the work of this blog and the recently formed ECPR Standing Group on Presidential Politics – will help to further develop this sub-discipline of political science to the extent that it becomes en par with long-established scholarship on the presidency of the United States.

__________________________________________________
References & Notes:
Lieberman, E. S. (2005). Nested Analysis as a Mixed-method Strategy for Comparative Research. American Political Science Review, 99(3), 435–452.
Tavits, M. (2008). Presidents with Prime Ministers: Do Direct Elections Matter?. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Find out more details about the book and the new series Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics  on the Palgrave website.

Bulgaria – Who got what in Borisov III cabinet?

About one month after the general election held on March 26, a new government formally took office in Bulgaria on May 4. The post-election negotiations were led by Boyko Borisov’s centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), which has emerged once again as the largest party in the fourth consecutive election since 2009. In fact, since the party first competed in a national poll in 2009, GERB and PM Borisov have spent only one year in opposition between May 2013 and October 2014.

As anticipated, a majority coalition was forged between GERB and the United Patriots (UP) alliance, which brings together Bulgaria’s three main players of the far right: the Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO), the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), and Ataka. Separately, the three parties have proved instrumental to maintaining both GERB- (in 2009 and 2014) and BSP-led governments (in 2013) in power without directly participating in government. This time around, due to their ability to unite ahead of the 2016 presidential election and support a common candidate, the nationalists are formally represented in cabinet.

Technically, the government has a mere one-seat majority, as the two coalition partners have 122 deputies between themselves in the 240-member National Assembly. Nevertheless, the ruling parties may be able to count on the more or less explicit parliamentary support of Volya, a new anti-establishment party founded by businessman Veselin Mareshki, which won 12 seats in the March election. A first indication in this regard was the investiture vote held on May 4, which the government won by 134 votes to 101, as Volya MPs voted alongside GERB and the United Patriots.

Portfolio allocation

Figure 1 compares the share of legislative seats the two partners contribute to the governing coalition with their portfolio payoffs. Out of 21 posts, GERB retained 17, including the PM, while UP obtained four posts. As kingmakers in the government formation process, the United Patriots were expected to demand a high price for their participation in cabinet. As far as the numerical payoffs are concerned, though, they received one portfolio less than their proportional share of the cabinet prize (if a purely proportional divisor method like Sainte-Laguë or Hare-Niemeyer were used to translate their seat contribution into cabinet posts). That said, removing the temporary portfolio in charge of Bulgaria’s 2018 EU Presidency from GERB’s share of ministerial posts results in perfect seat proportionality in portfolio allocation. Thus, the distribution of ministries may have taken into account the long-term prospects of the governing coalition and the need to underline the government’s pro-EU and pro-NATO stance ahead of the 2018 EU Presidency despite the presence of the Eurosceptic and pro-Russian (as far as Ataka is concerned) United Patriots in government. Moreover, an entire portfolio devoted to the EU Presidency is also consistent with the centrality of EU-related domestic and external policies highlighted in GERB’s 2017electoral manifesto.

Figure 1. Seat shares and portfolio allocation in Borisov III cabinet

The slight underpayment of the United Patriots may also reflect GERB’s dominant position within the party system and the decline in the nationalist vote compared to the 2014 general election. In fact, with the exception of Volya’s entry in parliament, the only parties that gained votes and seats in the 2017 election were the mainstream GERB and BPS, which dominate the right and left side of the political spectrum. Moreover, given the consensus on UP key demands such as increasing public spending and curbing immigration during the campaign, reaching a compromise with the nationalists may have been less of a complex bargain to strike.

In terms of policy areas, the United Patriots received two out of four deputy prime ministerships, along with the defence, economy, and environment portfolios. Krasimir Karakachanov (VMRO), the UP candidate in the 2016 presidential poll, cumulates the deputy prime ministership with the defence portfolio. One of his main priorities is to bring back compulsory military service, despite GERB’s reluctance to commit to anything more than “encouraging” voluntary military service in the governing programme. Valeri Simeonov (NFSB leader), who is deputy PM in charge of economic and demographic policy, has already faced calls for resignation after he downplayed a Nazi salute scandal that led to the resignation of an UP deputy minister. The economy portfolio is occupied by Emil Karanikolov, who was nominated by Ataka, while Neno Dimov, a former deputy environment minister during 1997-2001 who recently described global warming as a fraud, is the new environment minister.

GERB has kept the remaining 17 posts, including two deputy PMs. Most of these positions are occupied by ministers from previous GERB governments. Some of them have returned to the same posts they occupied in November 2016, when the government stepped down. This is the case for Tomislav Donchev (deputy PM), Vladislav Goranov (Minister of Finance), Ivaylo Moskovski (Minister of Transports), Temenuzhka Petkova (Minister of Enery), Nikolina Angelkova (Minister of Tourism) and Krasen Kralev (Minister of Youth and Sports). Others were promoted from the team of previous ministers or from the leadership of state agencies. Overall, the similarity with Boyko Borisov’s previous team has strengthened the expectations that “the status quo won” and that the country will receive “more of the same” while the GERB-UP coalition is in power.

Gender balance

Gender equality is not the strongest feature of PM Borisov’s third cabinet. Women hold only five out of 21 posts. The United Patriots did not nominate any women for their ministries. Most of the prestigious posts controlled by GERB went to men, including the ministries of the Interior, Finance, Labour, Health, Agriculture, Education, and Regional Development. That said, a few exceptions exist. Former justice minister Ekaterina Zakharieva was promoted as deputy PM and assigned the foreign affairs portfolio. She was succeeded at the Ministry of Justice by Tsetska Tsacheva, GERB’s candidate in the 2016 presidential election. Both women had previously held important political roles: the former was President Plevneliev’s Chief of Staff and served as Deputy PM in the two caretaker cabinets appointed during 2013-2014; while the latter served twice as Speaker of the National Assembly while GERB was in power (2009-2013 and 2014-2017). Former women ministers in Borisov’s previous cabinet picked up the other three portfolios in Energy, Tourism, and the temporary ministry in charge of the 2018 EU Presidency. On the whole, while this is a far cry from a parity government, at least women were not exclusively allocated stereotypically “feminine” or low-profile portfolios.

  Figure 2. Women and independent ministers in Bulgarian cabinets (1991-2017).                                                       Source: Cabinet composition data from Database on WHO GOVERNS in Europe; European Journal of Political Research Political Data Yearbook (Bulgaria); Wikipedia (Bulgarian pages)

Figure 2 shows that the current cabinet does not stand out from his predecessors. Since 1991, the percentage of women in Bulgarian cabinets has not exceeded 35%. In fact, it was during PM Borisov’s first term in government that the number of women in government increased from well below 20% to more than one third of cabinet members. This time around, though, women make up less than one quarter of cabinet members. As we can see from Figure 2, a significant number of Bulgarian ministers continue to be recruited from outside the parliament and political parties, partly as a result of enduring distrust in politicians and state institutions.

New president-cabinet relations

The return of GERB and PM Borisov to power is also likely to change the working relations between the head of state and the new executive. As it is known, Bulgaria’s third consecutive snap poll was triggered by the 2016 presidential election, as PM Borisov stepped down after GERB candidate Tsetska Tsacheva was defeated by Rumen Radev, the non-party candidate supported by BSP. Although the presidency is not a particularly important asset for running the government, the prime minister speculated the moment to prevent the Socialist Party from capitalising on their electoral victory in the long run.

Since President Radev, a former air force commander, ran in the election as a non-partisan candidate supported by BPS, the relations with the GERB-led government should not be labelled as cohabitation. That said, the level of conflict between the president and the government can escalate even outside periods of cohabitation. For example, President Plevneliev, who also run for office as a non-partisan candidate supported by GERB, constantly used his constitutional powers to put pressure on the Socialist-backed Oresharski government during 2013-2014.

Like his predecessor, President Radev seems to take a keen interest in electoral reform. In early April, while government formation negotiations were in full swing and the Gerdzhikov caretaker government was still in office, the president was involved in a controversy about the drafting of legislation limiting the voting right of Bulgarians living abroad. The caretaker government had no attributions in setting policy but the scandal intensified when officials from the Ministry of Justice claimed that the proposed amendments to the electoral legislation had been drafted in meetings with the president and his advisers. President Radev did not deny his involvement and argued that despite lacking formal powers of legislative initiative, he sees it as his duty to get involved when issues “particularly important to society and national security” are at stake.

To a certain extent, the voting bill rights episode may reflect the president’s lack of political experience. At the same time, it could also indicate his readiness to clash with political actors if necessary. PM Borisov’s plan to introduce a majority run-off system to elect all members of the National Assembly could provide such a motivation. GERB’s electoral reform proposals are in line with the three-question referendum held in November 2016. While the referendum results were not validated, the turnout was high enough to force the parliament to discuss and vote on the referendum matter. As the party that would have the most to gain from a majoritarian system, GERB is alone in supporting the adoption of the majority runoff rule for all 240 constituencies. All other parties, including the United Patriots coalition partners, are in favour of a mixed electoral system. President Radev argued against a 100% majoritarian vote as well. Thus, cohabitation or not, the GERB-UP coalition and the president/cabinet relations may soon reach the end of their honeymoon.

Petia Kostadinova and Maria Popova – The 2017 legislative elections in Bulgaria

This is a guest post by Petia Kostadinova (University of Illinois at Chicago) and Maria Popova (McGill University)

Background

Bulgaria held its third legislative elections in the last four years, the tenth such elections since 1990. These elections came on the heels of the November 2016 presidential race, which pitted an ostensibly pro-European candidate from the governing GERB against an ostensibly pro-Russian candidate backed by the opposition Socialists. At the outset of the presidential campaign, Prime Minister Borisov, had promised to resign if GERB’s candidate lost the election.  When that happened, Borisov kept his promise and triggered early parliamentary elections.

Eighteen parties and nine coalitions put forward candidates. A few new political formations are worth noting – Volya, United Patriots, DOST, and no less than three heirs to the defunct Reformist Bloc.  Five parties are to enter parliament – GERB, BSP, United Patriots, DPS, and Volya.

Topics that came through in the campaign

Many of the parties competing at the elections published election platforms. GERB’s was among the lengthiest, at 48 pages, and detailed the party’s actions in office. For the first time (to the authors’ knowledge), a party also explicitly mentioned the sources for its election program, a process that has remained a mystery in Bulgarian politics. Emphasis was placed on a collaboration between intra-party experts with current ministerial employees, thus pointing towards a continuity in GERB’s policies, while keeping the party in line with the priorities of the European People’s Party to which it belongs. The platform starts with GERB’s pro-EU and pro-NATO priorities, highlighting Bulgaria’s upcoming presidency of the Council of the European Union. Much of the platform is externally-oriented, detailing Bulgaria’s relations with individual (neighboring) countries, while keeping in line with the EU’s priorities towards the Russian Federation, Turkey, Western Balkans, etc. Even domestic policies, such as regional priorities were framed in terms of EU funding and structures. Thus, GERB staked out its claim to being Bulgaria’s main pro-European party, even though GERB’s leader Borisov frequently talked about improving relations with Russia on the campaign trail.

In contrast, the European Union was mentioned on only two of the 15-page long platform of the Bulgarian Socialist Party. The program was framed in terms of equality and poverty reduction, through increased government spending and protectionist measures. Very little space was dedicated in the Socialists program to the foreign policy priorities of the party, although the call for removal of EU sanctions against the Russian Federation was prominent.  Hence, the Socialists’ branding as the pro-Russian actor in Bulgarian politics. However, during their governing stints in 2004-2008 and 2013-2014, the Socialists had maintained Bulgaria’s unambiguously pro-European orientation, much to Russia’s chagrin, and had balked at pursuing many of the promised social welfare policies.

Similar to BSP’s, the platform of the Movement of Rights and Freedoms had a pessimistic view of the economic and political situation, calling for a plan to ‘save Bulgaria’. Emphasis was placed on spending and development of resources in education, healthcare, and agriculture. The EU and NATO were barely mentioned in the program, while Bulgaria’s relations with Russia, Turkey, or any neighboring countries were not at all discussed. Among all legislative parties, DPS’ was perhaps the most domestically-oriented election program.

Volya’s platform came close to that of the Socialists, advocating for increased social, education, and health spending, including support for families bearing more children, and for young families in general. The platform had a distinct pro-EU and pro-NATO tone, and in many areas the party emphasized adopting best practices ‘from abroad’. Volya called for a leadership role of Bulgaria in both the EU and the country’s immediate neighborhood. At the same time, the party also emphasized friendly relations with the Russian Federation. Volya’s ambiguous position on the EU-Russia foreign policy choice emphasizes that Bulgaria’s politics cannot be easily reduced to a pro-European/pro-Russian fault line.

United Patriots platform was typical of the coalition’s constituent parties combination of increased spending, protectionism, and curtailing of minority rights. Among the latter was a proposal that only those who are fluent in Bulgarian language, and have completed mandatory primary schooling would have the right to vote. Another idea put forward by the coalition was restricting the pro-Turkish parties from governing. Both ideas would most likely be struck down as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court, but probably played well with the xenophobic and nationalist part of the electorate.

The previous parliament featured a prominent reformist, pro-European, centre-right coalition—the Reformist Bloc. The coalition fell apart over the decision by some members to withdraw support from the Borisov government over slow judicial reforms and corruption scheme allegations. In the parliamentary election, those who wished to continue cooperating with Borisov and GERB contested the election as Reformist Bloc-Voice of the People; those who opposed cooperation with GERB split into two—Yes Bulgaria (in coalition with the Greens and DEOS) and New Republic. That split may have been either leader-driven or ideological, with Yes Bulgaria wanting to straddle the left-right spectrum and present itself as a liberal party focused on anti-corruption, good governance and the environment, and New Republic staking out Christian conservative, free market, and anti-Communist positions. Whatever the drivers of the split, neither of the three heirs to the Reformist Bloc passed the 4% threshold. As a result, the roughly 10% of the electorate, which backed them in both 2014 and 2017, lost their representation in the incoming parliament.

Election Results

Five parties surpassed the 4% threshold. GERB clinched first place with a third of the votes (32.65%), just as it did in 2014 and in 2013. The Socialist Party came in second with 27.20%. The traditional kingmaker in Bulgarian parliaments, the Turkish-minority-backed Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) was replaced (albeit very narrowly) as the third biggest party in parliament by the new United Patriots, a coalition of three far-right/far-left nationalist parties.  United Patriots received 9.07%, which is roughly the same result as one of its members, Ataka, had received on its own in previous elections.  While the far right has become the third biggest parliamentary faction and will most likely have a strong voice in the formation of the new cabinet, it did not manage to capitalize on the populist zeitgeist and expand its electoral base.  DPS received 8.99%. DPS’s result was probably lowered by the entry in this election of a competitor for the minority vote—DOST, led by ousted an DPS leader. DOST received 2.86%, which leaves it out of parliament, but it likely siphoned off votes from DPS. The fifth and final party to get parliamentary representation, Volya, is another newcomer—the vehicle for a businessman-turned-politician from the city of Varna, who had already made a splash in the presidential election, by getting over 11%.  It remains to be seen whether Volya will be an active populist player in parliament or will simply trade votes for policies that benefit its leader’s various business interests.

References

http://results.cik.bg/pi2017/rezultati/index.html

http://gerb.bg/bg/pages/otcheti-za-predizborni-kampanii-88.html

http://bsp.bg/news/view/11667-predizborna_platforma_na_blgarskata_sotsialisticheska_partiya.html

http://vestnikataka.bg/2017/03/програмата-на-обединени-патриоти-изб

http://www.dps.bg/bg/izbori-2017/predizborna-programa.html

http://volia.bg/programa.html

http://sofiaglobe.com/2017/01/20/ahead-of-parliamentary-election-bulgarian-socialist-leader-pledges-to-forge-closer-relations-with-russia/

http://sofiaglobe.com/2017/03/12/parliamentary-elections-yes-bulgaria-a-movement-for-change/

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2017

This post marks the third time that I have written about selected presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents (see 2015 and 2016 here), so that it is now becoming a tradition of its own. This year’s speeches differed only little in focus from last year, as the refugee crisis and security concerns continue to determine the public debate, yet speeches took a more political tone in a number of countries. At the same time, this year also saw some ‘firsts’ – newly-elected Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, gave her first New Year’s address and Austria (for the first time in decades) had no New Year’s address at all.

Slovak president Andrej Kiska reading out his New Year´s Day Address | © prezident.sk

Presidential Christmas and New Year’s Addresses tend to be a mixture of reflections on the political and societal events of the last year and general good wishes for the festive period or the new year. While the previous year had already seen an increase in political content, this year even more presidents referred to concrete events and policies – first and foremost the terrorist attack in Berlin on 19 December 2016. German president Gauck’s Christmas message was clearly dominated by the attack, yet stressed the need for compassion, highlighted efforts by volunteers both after the Berlin attacks and in helping refugees, and called for unity over sweeping judgments. Slovak president Andrej Kiska dismissed xenophobic sentiments in his New Year’s address even more directly, acknowledging a deviation from usual end-of-year reflection and highlighting his disagreements with the government over the issue. The Slovak government has not only strongly opposed taking in any refugees, but also includes the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and recently passed a more restrictive church law specifically targeting Muslims (which was promptly vetoed by Kiska). Quite in contrast to these conciliatory words, Czech president Zeman used the opportunity claim a ‘clear link between the migrant wave and terrorist attacks’. In his 20-minute address – far longer than any other presidential holiday speech – from the presidential holiday residence at Lany, he also attacked the governing coalition, spoke about banning internet pornography and expressed his admiration for Donald Trump and his ‘aggressive style’.

The Christmas speech of Polish president Andrzej Duda also took an unusually political turn as it started off with much praise for government reforms. Although the Polish government, too, refused to accept refugees under the EU compromises, references to EU crises remained relatively vague. Remarkable, however, was Duda’s call to ‘respect the rules of democracy’ which was clearly aimed at the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition which criticised what they in turn perceived as the unconstitutional behaviour of the governing party (see here). The address by Duda’s Croatian counterpart, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was also in remarkable as she devoted the entirety of her speech to condemning recent increases in intolerance and the simultaneous glorification of past fascist and communist regimes which she then linked to the fact that “busloads of young people are leaving the country each day” and called the government and all parties to action. Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella likewise urged parties to take action  to avoid the ‘ungovernability’ of the country, yet mostly focussed on listing the concerns of citizens and various tragic deaths rather than providing a very positive message.

Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev used his last New Year’s address as president to highlight more positive achievements, such as the ten year anniversary of EU accession (also mentioned by Romanian president Iohannis in his very brief seasons’ greetings), a rise in GDP and successful completion of the presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. While stressing the need for further reform, President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades also provided a more positive message focused on the progress in the negotiations about a reunification of the island, also thanking people for their sacrifices in implementing the financial bail-out completed in 2016.

Hungarian President Ader with sign language interpreter (left); Latvian president Vejonis with his wife (right)

On a different note, Hungarians and Latvians might have been surprised to see additional faces in the recordings of presidential messages: Hungarian president Janos Ader’s speech was simultaneously interpreted into sign language by deaf model and equality activist Fanni Weisz standing in the background, whereas Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis even shared parts of the address with his wife. For those interested in ‘pomp and circumstance’, the address by Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro is highly recommended as the recording features a praeludium and a postludium by a military band in gala uniform inside the presidential palace (Youtube video here).

Last, for the first time in decades Austria lacked a New Year’s address by the president. Although Alexander Van der Bellen was finally elected president in early December, he will only be inaugurated on 26 January 2016. His successor, Heinz Fischer, finished his term already on 8 July 2016 and the triumvirate of parliamentary speakers (which incidentally include Van der Bellen’s unsuccessful challenger, Norbert Hofer), who are currently serving collectively as acting president, did not provide any New Year’s greetings.

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A full list of speeches is available for download here.

Petia Kostadinova – Bulgaria elects an opposition candidate as its next President and incumbent PM resigns

This is a guest post by Petia Kostadinova, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, at the University of Illinois at Chicago

Background and participants

With its new democratic constitution passed in 1991, Bulgaria established for the first time in its history the institution of the President of the Republic. Direct elections, with the winner requiring to gather the majority of votes cast, started taking place in 1992. The sixth such elections were held in November 2016 over two rounds, Nov. 6 and Nov. 13. A national referendum on three questions was also took place on Nov. 6. The referendum asked voters to weigh in on (1) introduction of a run-off single member district electoral system for legislative elections, requiring winning candidates to gather the majority of votes cast on the second round; (2) introduction of mandatory voting; (3) state financing of political parties equal to 1 BG Lev (= 0.51 Euro) for each vote received at legislative elections. The presidential elections were also the first under rules stipulating that non-participation in two consecutive elections would lead to voters losing their automatic voter registration. This stipulation was one of the questions addressed in the referendum.

Voter turnout was relatively high, approaching 58% of the electorate at the first round, and over 40% at the run off.[1]  The elections were preceded by an active controversy surrounding the diaspora vote. Initially the Electoral Code, guiding the procedures of these elections stipulated that there would be no more than 35 polling locations in countries that are not members of the European Union (EU). Most Bulgarians living outside the EU reside in Turkey and the United States. The upper limit of polling locations was eventually removed from the Electoral Code, in time for the first round of elections.

Twenty-two sets of candidates were put forward, and for the first time voters had the option to cast a ballot for no candidate, expressing their dissatisfaction with the choices. Five and a half percent of voters marked “I do not support any candidate” at the first round, and 4.71% made such a choice at the second round. The governing party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), was among the last to nominate a presidential candidate, after the current President Plevneliev supported by GERB, chose not to run for re-elections. Eventually, GERB nominated the Chairperson of the National Assembly, Tsetska Tsacheva, as their candidate. GERB’s main coalition partner, Reform Bloc (RB), put forward a separate nomination, that of Traicho Traikov, who had been a member of the first GERB government, 2009-2012.

The two main opposition parties, Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), did not directly nominate presidential candidates, instead pledging their respective party’s vote for presidential hopefuls supported through personal ‘initiative committees’. As an effort to increase direct citizen participation in democratic governance, initiative committees allow for at least twenty-one citizens to sign a petition nominating (presumably politically) independent candidates for President and Vice President (VP). Ten of the 22 sets of candidates were put forward through such initiative committees. The Socialists supported Roumen Radev and Illiana Iotova’s candidacies. Radev is a general without political experience and the former head of the Bulgarian Air Force. Iotova is a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from the Group of Socialists and Democrats. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms supported the nomination of former Finance Minister, and later Prime Minister, Plamen Oresharski, with Danail Papazov as VP candidate.

Issues in the campaign

While some parties nominated candidates as early as May 2016, the election campaign did not intensify until October, after GERB finally settled on a nominee. Debates among presidential hopefuls have become a norm in Bulgaria, and at least a dozen such events, sponsored by different media outlets, took place among different sets of candidates. The two leading candidates, Radev and Tsacheva, hesitated to participate in debates with multiple participants, and instead debated among themselves. The President of the Republic does not have extensive executive and legislative functions, although s/he can initiate changes in the Constitution, and can use veto power over certain legislation. In addition to ceremonial functions related to foreign affairs, the office of Head of State in Bulgaria has prerogatives focusing on national security. Fittingly, among the main issues that emerged in presidential debates were the country’s communist legacy, foreign policy especially with respect to Russia, and Turkey, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the EU’s handling of the refugee crisis, and domestically – the stalled reform of the legal system. Radev is widely considered a pro-Russian politician, and has called for the lifting of the EU sanctions on Russia. Tsacheva also called for warming up relations with the Russian Federation, and indicated that if elected, she’d invite President Putin to visit Bulgaria. Due to the limited constitutional powers of the President in Bulgaria though, s/he does not participate in European Union decision-making processes. It is unlikely that the election of a pro-Russia President alone would lead to a change in the country’s foreign policy direction.

Outcome and implications

At the first round of elections, Radev, supported by the Socialist Party, won the plurality of votes (25.44%), followed by GERB’s Tsacheva with 21.96%. The candidate of three nationalist parties under the label of United Patriots Karakatchanov gathered 14.97% of the vote. A regional businessman, owner of a pharmacy chain, Mareshki, nominated by one of the nearly dozen initiative committees received 11.17% of the vote. The candidate supported by the Movement of Rights and Freedoms came in fourth with 6.63% of the vote.

Sunday’s run-off between the first and second ranked at the first round was decisively won by Radev with 59.37% of the votes cast. Tsacheva gathered 36.16% of the vote. Exit polls suggest that at the second round of elections, Radev attracted votes from DPS, as well as the majority of those who voted for the candidate of the nationalist parties. Tsacheva was supported by half of those who voted for the candidate of the Reform Bloc.

At the start of the election campaign, Prime Minister Borisov made it explicit that if the GERB candidate did not win the presidency, he would resign, turning the presidential elections into a proxy vote of no confidence for his government. When Tsacheva came in second after the first round, Borisov hesitated to step down but reiterated that GERB would not participate in government if she lost the final vote. Radev’s win in the second round led to Borisov’s resignation. The composition of any future government as well as the timing of new elections remain unclear at the time when this report was written. The outgoing President can approach the second largest party in the National Assembly – BSP – to form a (coalition) government in the current legislature. But the Socialists have already announced that they are not interested, and that they would seek to win the forthcoming legislative vote. The timing of the latter is yet to be determined. The outgoing President does not have the right to dissolve the legislature within three months of his term ending in January 2017. Thus, it would have to be the incoming President Radev who would call for new elections that can take place in April 2017 at the earliest. In the meantime, with GERB out of office, current President Plevneliev and president-elect Radev have agreed to work together on appointing a caretaker government until the next elections take place. Leading politicians have also indicated that despite the referendum failing to gather the minimum number of votes to be binding, there is interest in introducing a majoritarian single member district electoral system before the next elections, thus significantly changing the country’s political landscape.

Notes

[1] As of the writing of this piece, the Central Election Committee had not reported the final numbers on voter turnout.

References

http://www.parliament.bg/bg/const
https://bg.wikipedia.org/wiki/Президентски_избори_в_България_(1992)
https://bg.wikipedia.org/wiki/Президентски_избори_в_България_(1996)
https://bg.wikipedia.org/wiki/Президентски_избори_в_България_(2001)
https://bg.wikipedia.org/wiki/Президентски_избори_в_България_(2006)
http://pvr2006.cik.bg/results_2/index.html
https://results.cik.bg/tur2/prezidentski/index.html
https://results.cik.bg/pvrnr2016/tur1/aktivnost/index.html
http://www.dnevnik.bg/bulgaria/2016/10/27/2851855_prezidentut_podpisa_promenite_v_izborniia_kodeks/
http://www.lex.bg/laws/ldoc/2135636485
https://www.president.bg/cat72/54770482851643602/
http://www.mediapool.bg/radev-stana-prezident-pravitelstvoto-si-otiva-news256418.html
http://www.mediapool.bg/plevneliev-i-radev-shte-opredelyat-zaedno-sastava-na-sluzhebniya-kabinet-news256514.html

Bulgaria – Cabinet member chosen from the president’s staff and a brief sneak peek at the 2016 presidential election

Bulgaria’s Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov resigned on 9 December 2015 after the parliament revised some of his proposals for constitutional amendments, which were aimed at reducing the influence of the country’s chief prosecutor on the judiciary. His plans to reform and make the prosecuting authority more accountable before parliament had already led to tensions between GERB’s junior coalition partners, the Reformist Bloc (RB), a loose coalition of five right-wing parties, and the centre-left Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV) party together with the nationalist Patriotic Front. Formally an independent minister, Ivanov entered PM Borisov’s government in November 2014 as part of the RB quota.

Initially, Ivanov’s resignation seemed to threaten the government’s own survival, as the leader of the Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB), one of the parties in the Reformist Bloc, threatened to withdraw support from government. The RB holds 23 seats in the 240-seat legislature, including 10 DSB members. Additionally, the minister’s resignation was followed by street protests calling for a full-scale judicial reform, which were reminiscent of the mass demonstrations that had brought down PM Borisov’s first government in 2013. Given the government’s minority status in parliament, both the president and the prime minister raised concerns over political stability and warned of early elections if the coalition broke down.

In a move that seemed typical for the contradictory positions assumed by the members in the RB coalition, DSB announced its decision to move into the opposition without withdrawing their Health Minister Petar Moskov from the cabinet. Nevertheless, the other four parties in the Reformist Bloc decided to continue their support for the government, conditional on the renegotiation of the coalition agreement and the next steps in the judicial reform.

PM Borisov’s GERB and the RB held talks over possible nominations for the justice ministry, both parties advancing claims over the position. In the end, PM Borisov proposed Ekaterina Zaharieva, the president’s chief of staff as a new Deputy PM and Justice Minister. Her nomination was approved by 126 out of the 240 MPs, although some coalition members were split over the appointment.

Like her predecessor, Hristo Ivanov, Ekaterina Zaharieva is a non-partisan minister. She took office as the president’s Chief Secretary in 2012, after serving as a deputy minister for public works at the time when Rosen Plevneliev also held office as minister before winning the 2011 presidential election. Hardly a newcomer to key cabinet positions, she had previously held office as Deputy PM in the two caretaker cabinets appointed by President Rosen Plevneliev in March 2013 and August 2014. At the end of her caretaker minister duties, she returned as the president’s Chief of Staff in November 2014.

What could follow next in 2016? Despite the coalition splits unveiled by the recent government crisis, PM Borisov’s grip on power seems secure in the face of an even more divided opposition. The government may nevertheless need to demonstrate its support in parliament soon enough, as the opposition Socialists are holding consultations for a no-confidence motion with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS).

Nevertheless, one of the most important events of the year is the presidential election that will be held in October. President Plevneliev has once again demonstrated his ability to provide solutions to political crises and skills in recruiting cabinet talent, which can be used as valuable assets if he decides to run for a second term in office.

The justice reform is likely to play an important role in the election campaign, not least because Bulgaria’s progress in this area continues to be monitored by the European Commission. In fact, PM Borisov accused DSB leader Radan Kanev of trying to exploit coalition tensions over the judicial reform to kick-start his election campaign. In his first messages addressed in early January, President Plevneliev has also taken the opportunity to stress the need for new constitutional changes to speed up the judicial reform.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2016

In the first blog post of 2015, I explored the origins of and various customs and conventions surrounding the Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state. This year, I will look more closely at the content of these speeches (although focussing – for the sake of brevity – only on presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state this time).

Finnish Niinistö records his New Year's speech for 2016 | photo (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

Finnish president Sauli Niinistö records his New Year’s speech for 2016 | (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

As I noted in my post last year, Christmas and New Year’s addresses rarely rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies and often include a short summary of the last year’s events in the country. Common themes (apart from holiday wishes) are relatively rare. This year, however, many presidents directly addressed the refugee crisis in Europe. The presidents of Austria and Germany who have had to deal with extraordinary refugee streams both called for compassion and tried to strengthen the ‘can do’-spirit that has so far characterised the reactions of Federal Chancellors’ Merkel and Faynmann and volunteers in both countries. Presidents of other countries hit by the surge of refugees did not address the issue so clearly. Hungarian president Ader referred to it among other unexpected events of 2015, while the Slovenian and Croatian presidents Pahor and Grabar-Kitarović in their – significantly shorter seasons’ greetings – did not raise the issue at all apart from vague references to difficulties.

The refugee crisis featured more prominently on the other hand in the speeches of Slovak president Kiska and Czech president Zeman – yet taking almost diametrically opposed positions. Kiska largely downplayed the issue stating Slovakia was much less affected than other countries and the issue should not dominate the national agenda. Zeman on the other hand, called the influx of refugees as “an organized invasion” and called for young male refugees to return to their country to fight ISIS. Given Zeman’s previous statements this is hardly surprising, yet it is generally unusual for a Christmas message to include such controversial material. The refugee crisis also took centre stage in speeches by Finnish president Niinistö as he justified the steps taken by the government to limit the number of people receiving help.

Another theme in presidential speeches were national tragedies and the security. The Paris attacks featured strongly in French president Hollande’s speech, so did the Germanwing air crash in German president Gauck’s Christmas message. The ongoing Ukrainian crisis and potential conflict with Russia as well as the war in Syria were included in a number of speeches. Yet presidents also focussed on the economic situation and way of the recession – most prominently included in the messages of the presidents of Greece, Portugal and Iceland. The latter’s speech was however mostly reported on due to the fact that president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced that he would not run for a sixth term as president.

Overall, this once again highlights that presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses can be important indicators of the political situation or the importance of particular events throughout the year. Until now, there has nevertheless been only very limited academic research on presidential statements on these occasions. So far, I could only find an analysis of the role of religion in new year’s addresses by Swiss Federal Presidents – showing an overall decline in biblical references throughout the years. [1] In most European republics appear to follow this trend – explicit biblical references beyond a mere reference to the holiday can only be found in the speeches of the presidents of Malta and Hungary.

Christmas - NY presidents 2016 + Wulff 2011

From top left to bottom right: Presidents Higgins (Ireland), Duda (Poland), Wulff (Germany; 2011), Coleiro Preca (Malta), Iohannis (Romania).

Last but not least (and partly inspired by the DailyMail’s analysis of the photographs on Queen Elizabeth II’s desk), I think it is worth looking at the setting of presidents’ speeches. Where speeches are broadcast on TV (or recorded and then put on youtube), the setting is surprisingly similar with the president usually sitting or standing in front of flags or a fireplace. In Germany, this set-up had so much become the norm that Christian Wulff’s walking speech among a group of surprisingly diverse citizens (see centre image of above collage) caused great excitement among editors trying to fill the seasonal news slump. More unusual however was Swiss Federal President Adolf Ogi’s address of 2000 – he stood in front of a railway tunnel (watch the video here).

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[1] Kley, Andreas (2008). ‘”Und der Herrgott, Herr Bundespräsident?” Zivilreligion in den Neujahrsansprachen der schweizerischen Bundespräsidenten’. In: Kraus, Dieter et al. Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Kirchenrecht. Bern, Switzerland, 11-56.

A list with links to the 2015/2016 speeches can be downloaded here.

Bulgaria – President Plevneliev’s second bid for a voting rules referendum

The Bulgarian president’s power to propose referenda is relatively weak. This, however, did not stop President Plevneliev from seeking a referendum on voting rules in 2014. The opposing Socialist-led majority in parliament eventually defeated his campaign. The president has nevertheless pledged to resume his efforts to trigger a national poll in 2015, following last year’s snap election and the formation of the centre-right coalition government led by PM Borissov’s GERB.

The head of state has a rather marginal involvement in the procedure for the calling of national referenda. While he or she has the right to put forward a proposal for a popular poll, the constitutional power to decide on the holding of a national referendum belongs entirely to the National Assembly (article 84). Under the new referendum law, which limits considerably the subject matters that can be put to a popular vote, one-fifth of all MPs, the government, one-fifth of all municipal councils, or a citizens’ initiative committee that gathered at least 200,000 signatures can also ask the Parliament to consider a referendum proposal. Additionally, a national referendum must be held if so demanded by a petition signed by at least 500,000 citizens (article 10).

If the parliament votes to hold the referendum, then the president must schedule the poll on a date that is not earlier than two months and not later than three months from the parliament’s decision (article 14). To be valid, a referendum also requires a higher turnout than that registered at the previous general election and the support of at least half of the voting participants (article 23). This means that any referendum held before the next general election needs a higher turnout than 51.05 per cent, which was recorded at the October 2014 election. If both conditions are met, then the Parliament must amend the law accordingly. However, if the turnout is lower than this threshold, but higher than 20 per cent of registered voters, then the Parliament only needs to discuss and vote on the referendum matter (articles 23-24).

President Plevneliev has taken different approaches to introduce his two bids for a voting rules referendum. He first brought this proposal into public debate in January 2014, following many months of street protests against the ruling Socialist-led coalition and just a few weeks ahead of a parliamentary vote on a new election law.

In a televised address to the nation, the head of state proposed a referendum on three aspects that were meant to increase the accountability of politicians and restore public trust in political institutions: the direct election of at least some of the 240 MPs who are currently chosen from semi-open party lists, and the introduction of compulsory voting and e-voting. Given the president’s opposition to the government’s new Election Code, which he also vetoed several weeks later, the referendum proposal was interpreted as routine infighting between the government and the head of state.

Shortly after the National Assembly overturned the president’s veto and turned down his referendum proposal, a petition supported by more than 560,000 signatures was brought to the parliament. The petition called for a poll on the same three questions and the signatures had been gathered with support from GERB, the main opposition party. Eventually, the number of valid signatures fell short of the 500,000 threshold that would have made it mandatory for MPs to call a referendum, but was still large enough to require a debate in the parliament. However, given that GERB was the only party to support the president’s call, the citizen initiative was easily rejected by the ruling parties in June 2014.

The president’s second attempt to trigger a voting rules referendum is currently on-going under different circumstances. The October 2014 snap election brought to office a new centre-right coalition government led by GERB, the party that supported president Plevneliev’s candidacy in 2011. This political change allowed the head of state to take a more conciliatory route to re-introduce the referendum on the political agenda.

Voting rules featured as one of the five major themes proposed for discussion during the President’s “Month of Political Consultations” with parliamentary parties. This consensual framework of discussion has allowed the president to re-launch the referendum initiative as an all-party agreement, even if the Socialist party is still opposing vehemently this idea. Thus, addressing the parliament following the conclusion of political talks, President Plevneliev underlined not only his firm intention to propose a new referendum, but also the all-party consensus to have this poll held alongside local elections, which are scheduled for the next October or November.

The details of the procedure to be followed – whether a parliamentary vote on the president’s referendum proposal will suffice or if the route of a citizen initiative needs to be taken again – will be determined in the coming weeks. In the meantime, small parties are also trying to take advantage of this process to initiate further changes that could end the big parties’ monopoly over the initiation of referenda. For example, a bill tabled by the left-wing ABV, one of GERB’s small coalition partners, proposes that 150,000 signatures should be enough for the parliament to consider a referendum initiative, while the number of signatures required for calling a referendum should be reduced to 300,000. Additionally, ABV argues that the participation threshold should be lowered to 40 per cent of the eligible voters and supports the introduction of a mixed-member proportional system.