30 March 2023

On 2 April 2023, Bulgarians will head to polling stations across the country and abroad to vote for the 49th National Assembly elections. The stakes in the election are high – and not just because the last four elections have failed to produce a stable government. Alongside the delays to Bulgaria’s accession to Schengen and the Eurozone, the country faces major problems with inflation and social division. Yet even as the public weighs up important matters like these, another issue threatens to hijack the agenda – a growing lack of confidence in the elections themselves.

The politicisation of electoral proceedings

With such frequent visits to polling stations, it is understandable that many Bulgarians should be increasingly frustrated with elections. Yet the problem is not simply their frequency, but also the constant changes to the election process itself. 

In the last parliament, the means of voting has itself become politicised, with the so-called “paper coalition”, including GERB, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the Movement for Rights and Freedom (DPS), opposing the use of voting machines, while parties such as We Continue the Change, Democratic Bulgaria and Vazrazhdane (Revival) support their use. This has further undermined public trust in elections.

Additionally, fears are already mounting in some quarters that a return to paper ballots will mean a return to vote-buying.

Voting machines and the return of paper ballots

In May 2021, Bulgaria became the first European country to make the use of voting machines compulsory in almost all voting stations. The intention behind the law was to reduce the unusually high number of invalid ballots in many Bulgarian elections, and to counter allegations of vote buying.

Yet in December 2022, following a mammoth 40-hour debate in parliament, the ” paper coalition” overturned the law. This decision sparked protests, and in the meantime, pro-voting machine parties have made efforts to ensure that the machines still play a role in the election.  

The result is a situation in which machine voting will be available in many polling stations, but voters will be given a choice between using the machines or casting a paper ballot, except in polling stations used by less than 300 people, where there will be only paper ballots (as has always been the case). 79% of polling stations within Bulgaria will have voting machines, while 33% of those abroad will have them.

For Daniel Stefanov, election expert and observer, former election adviser to the deputy prime minister and former external consultant to the Central Election Commission in Bulgaria, this hybrid solution is a real cause for concern. 

“From a technical and practical point of view, the main risk is that the polling units staff will have to do the counting manually, for both the paper and machine voting results. We have traditionally had some problems with the results protocols from polling units where the quality was not good enough,” said Stefanov.  “Now we expect this to happen again. Those mistakes usually do not lead to changes in the final result in parliamentary elections because of the peculiarities of our system, but they create serious doubts about the integrity of the result. And you know that an election is as fair as the society believes it is.”

Is a return to voting machines the answer? 

For some, the answer seems clear: a return to compulsory machine voting. Yet the issue is by no means this clear-cut. While it is true that the voting machines were the target of protracted disinformation campaigns, there were also problems in the way their use was implemented. 

According to Stefanov, these problems undercut the good they might otherwise have done for Bulgaria’s elections: “I am a supporter of the use of technologies in elections. The problem is that when a technological solution is implemented in the wrong way, it is both the technology and the trust in the elections that are damaged. In Bulgaria, machine voting had to solve the problem with the bad result protocols and the doubts in the counting. However, it was implemented without the needed level of transparency of the procedures.”

In their report on the November 2021 Presidential and Early Parliamentary Elections, election observers from the OSCE noted flaws in the certification process for the machines “at odds with the legal provisions and international good practice”. They pointed out that the process was mostly not open to outside observers and that the source code for the machines was never made available for public scrutiny. Additionally, the final certification report for the machines was published just six days prior to the election, in part due to the haste with which they were introduced. 

For Stefanov, problems like these made the use of the machines problematic from the very beginning: “In such situations, you need an election management institution that has the technical and expert capacity to exercise control over the process, so that it can come up publicly and respond to all doubts and allegations. But this was not the case in Bulgaria, and machine voting became very controversial for some of the political parties. They started questioning the quality and the functioning of the software and thus the integrity of the results. This is a kind of damage that is very difficult to repair, although there was not much of an attempt at it.”

“It was a very good example of how the lack of transparency and capacity in the election management body can ruin a technological project which otherwise could have solved some of the pressing problems in the electoral process.”

A close race

The division in Bulgarian society is visible not only through the highly politicised means of voting, but also in polling.  According to Politico Poll of Polls as of 27 March, both GERB and the coalition between We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB) are neck-and-neck for the first place with approximately 26% support of the public vote each, followed by the Movement for Rights and Freedom (DPS) and the far-right party Revival (Vazrazhdane) competing for the third place with accordingly 14% and 13%. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) is given 8% making it the fifth party certain to enter Parliament ahead of a few smaller parties hovering around the threshold of 4%. 

If, in contrast to the country’s last four elections,  the election does lead to the formation of a stable government, they will find themselves confronted with a series of intimidating challenges. Among the most pressing is the restoration of fragile public trust in the electoral process itself.

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