Democracy in the sense of getting citizens popularly elected to public office has never been easy in Bulgaria's quarter of a century of the experience, but it turned nearly lethal on the day following the local elections at the end of October.
The Armeets Sports Hall, inaugurated with much fanfare by no one lesser than the sitting prime minister, Boyko Borisov, and hailed as the largest in Sofia, turned out to be quite comfy for a game of basketball to be watched by 12,000, but miserably not enough for about 5,000 officials who were supposed to bring in the ballots they had counted in their constituencies to what in Bulgaria is known as the Central Election Committee.
The drama started after members of the radical VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, the Greens and a few others showed up at the sports hall in their capacity as "citizens" to voice concern the ballot and been "manipulated." The hall had already been locked up and no ballot-counter was allowed to leave as the law stipulated the bag of ballots and the person holding it could not be separated until delivered.
TV cameras showed bunk beds being unfolded on the hall's pitch to accommodate officials who had gone without sleep for over 24 hours. A system to disperse coffee and sandwiches was introduced whereby officials were given coupons. Different-coloured coupons would bring the same food and drinks, but thirsty and hungry officials soon discovered that they could use them only in specific time slots, in keeping with an individual coupon's colour. To put it in another way, if you were a ballot-counting official in Bulgaria's local elections equipped with a pink coupon and you wanted a cup of coffee after 11am you wouldn't be able to get one because pink meant valid only until 10:30am.
As officials became increasingly desperate for food, drinks and sleep, emergency ambulances were called in. A total of 117 people were examined, 12 were admitted to hospital. One pregnant official had a miscarriage inside the building, and several others fainted. More ingenuous officials went to the insides of the doors out and scribbled on the glass panes: "SOS! We are taken hostage!"
The chief of the Sofia regional elections committee said everything inside the Army Sports Hall was "normal," that it was a matter of "personal choice" for officials to sit on chairs or "recline on the floor," and that at least some of the 117 examined had feigned sickness.
On the positive side, Bulgaria's dabble with democracy did not produce any deaths, contrary to early reports that an official had actually died inside the sports hall.