Sunday

24th Jan 2021

Bulgaria holds referendum on electronic voting

  • If Bulgarians vote in favour of electronic voting on Sunday, they will have the choice of going to the ballot box or staying at home and voting on their computer or tablet. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

Bulgarians will vote on Sunday (October 25) in a referendum on whether to introduce electronic voting, which the country’s reformist leaders hope can change its political landscape and advance their agenda.

If the Yes camp wins, electoral law would be amended to give voters the choice of going to the ballot box or staying at home and voting on their computer or tablet.

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Some 77 percent of voters are likely to vote Yes, according to a poll conducted earlier this month by the Sofia-based Alpha Research agency. It said the referendum turnout is expected to be 49 percent - which would be enough to validate it - compared to 58 percent forecast for the local elections also held on Sunday.

"The remote electronic voting will ensure higher election turnouts,” Bulgarian veteran tennis star Manuela Maleeva said. A tennis world number 3 in 1985, 48-year-old Maleeva heads one of several grassroots campaigns for the Yes camp.

“Bulgarian citizens abroad as well as many citizens in the country will have easier access to participation in elections and referenda,” she said, referring to the 2 million Bulgarian citizens who live outside the country of 7.2 million.

For now, the Bulgarian diaspora, mainly located in the EU and North America, votes in Bulgarian embassies and consular services. But people have been complaining of long distances, insufficient capacity of voting stations and long queues to vote.

Vote-buying

The referendum initiators hope that electronic voting will help eliminate vote-buying which parties practice predominantly in Roma slums, as well as so-called 'corporate voting' where people in economically depressed areas follow dominant employers’ orders in order not to lose their jobs.

The EU Commission has highlighted vote-buying in its annual reports on Bulgaria’s justice and home affairs reforms. But the practice has proved difficult to eradicate despite dozens of low-level convictions.

Reformist groups are pinning their hopes on electronic voting to broaden their electoral base by luring more young and educated people to vote. The current political scene is largely shared by parties relying on elderly, poor and low-educated voters who are suspicious of modernisation and are prone to manipulation and nostalgia of the country's Communist past.

The younger white collar class is often apathetic to mainstream politics and sceptical of its ability to bring about change. Most of it prefers to move to other EU countries or overseas.

The four parties in the ruling coalition - the centre-right GERB of prime minister Boiko Borisov, the Reformist Bloc, the moderately nationalist Patriotic Front and the left ABV of former president Georgi Parvanov have urged their supporters to vote Yes.

More convenient

The Socialist, formerly Communist, Party and the far-right pro-Russian Ataka party lined up to back the No, saying "the introduction of electronic voting creates premises to manipulate and control the vote.”

The predominantly Turkish ethnic Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), a kingmaker in a series of post-Communist parliaments, has not stated a clear position.

It is not clear how distance voting would impact the MRF, which is known for its loyal and disciplined voters who make up to 10 percent of the electorate. The vast majority of them are low-educated people with poor or no computer skills.

Electronic voting will, however, make elections more convenient for the hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian ethnic Turks who have settled in neighbouring Turkey. So far, many of them have been travelling by bus to Bulgaria to cast their ballots.

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