by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgarians abroad face technical issues at 2021 general election

One of the topics debated in what was an exceptionally tepid election campaign was how Bulgarians abroad should be enabled to vote. Bulgarians, like the French and the Italians but unlike the Danes and the Irish, can vote in general elections regardless of their permanent place of abode.

In 1990, Bulgaria joined about half of all the nations in the world by granting its citizens the irrevocable right to vote in general elections. The main word in the previous sentence is "half" – as, notably, the other half impose various restrictions on their expat citizens' voting rights. While some developed democracies such as Germany, Italy and France do grant their citizens voting rights regardless of where they are in the world, others do not. The UK, for instance, imposes a 15-year absentee exception, meaning any Briton can still exercise their voting rights as long as they have been outside of the UK for up to 15 years. Austrians abroad wishing to vote can too, but they need to have enrolled themselves on a dedicated foreign voters' register and must renew their registration every 10 years. Sweden treats Swedes abroad similarly: they have to be registered and re-registered every 10 years. Denmark allows no expat voting. You can only vote in Danish general elections if you have a registered address in the country. A registered address also implies full tax liability.

There are various pro and con arguments whether expats should be able to vote in national elections. Some of the pros suggest a voting right is a fundamental right of a citizen regardless of where in the world one may live. The cons suggest that voting rights carry obligations to contribute more to society than posting Facebook statuses, for example by paying tax. Philosophically put, why should people who have lived outside of the country for years, probably with fading memories of the problems faced by the non-expat majority, be able to determine policies that will affect mainly that majority of taxpayers?

Significantly, the Bulgarian post-Communist Constitution of 1990 included the voting rights provision mainly as a gesture to about 300,000 Bulgarian Turks who had been expelled from Bulgaria in the sunset days of Communism in what is still euphemistically referred to as the "Great Excursion." Many of these people settled in Turkey, though some returned to Bulgaria for good in the early 1990s. First, second and now even a third generation of Turks of Bulgarian origin living in Turkey, some of whom may be unfamiliar with the political issues of the day over which a Bulgarian general election is contested, are entitled to their citizenship of an EU country and to the voting rights it carries. The TV footage of busloads of Bulgarian Turks arriving into Bulgaria and casting their ballots on election day have angered various non-Turkish politicians of all shades and hues because these ballots have made the Turkish-dominated DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the unavoidable balance of power in the Bulgarian parliament. In any Bulgarian parliament since 1990.

The situation, of course, has changed significantly since the late 1980s-early 1990s. Waves of emigration of Bulgarians in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s have resulted in the population of this country dwindling by at least a million. Many of these Bulgarians have been guest workers in Greece, Italy and Spain, often doing seasonal farming work or other menial jobs. The majority return to Bulgaria in wintertime and use their savings to provide for themselves and their families. But many, especially the better educated, integrate themselves in their adopted countries. They get good jobs and start families. They will be reluctant to leave London, Berlin or Chicago even if Bulgarian salaries hypothetically reached the EU median.

No one can say with certainty how many Bulgarian citizens live abroad at the moment. The figure varies between 500,000 to over 2 million. All of them have voting rights.

As part of their election campaigns, some political parties focused on the Bulgarian expat community. Their reasons were varied but came down to one thing: they hoped that the Bulgarians abroad would vote for them. The relatively new Yes Bulgaria party, led by Hristo Ivanov, the There Is Such a People party of Slavi Trifonov and Tsvetan Tsvetanov's Republicans for Bulgaria were particularly vocal. Tsvetanov, Ivanov and Trifonov all used to be associated with strongman Boyko Borisov at various times and in various capacities, but now claim Borisov is their chief foe. Because it has a number of activists in the West who are very vocal on social media Yes Bulgaria thought Bulgarian expats would cast their votes for it and thus enable it to jump over the 4 percent threshold needed to enter the next Bulgarian parliament. Slavi Trifonov thought the same, possibly with better reason – if the crowds buying tickets for his concerts in the United States were anything to go by. Tsvetanov, Boyko Borisov's former right-hand man who should be largely credited for making Bulgaria what it is at the moment, managed to convince a wealthy Bulgarian entrepreneur in the United States, who operates mainly in the trucking business, to give him $1 million for his election campaign.

In keeping with the present rules, Bulgarian expats abroad can only vote in person. This means a Bulgarian living in Wyoming would have to travel to the nearest Bulgarian polling station (Chicago), on voting day and at their own expense, to do that. Postal or e-voting is non-existent. Yes Bulgaria, especially, swear they can implement an efficient electronic voting system in no time at all. In fact the overwhelming majority of political parties contesting the election had the introduction of e-government high on their agendas.

Of course this sounds sensible and of course Bulgaria, with its army of reputedly genius computerists can do it in theory at least, but the facts on the ground are different. Introducing some sort of an e-government has been tabled since at least the early 2000s. Millions have been spent on building up systems, networks and databases, with the sorry result that in 2021 you cannot get a government issued e-signature paid for by yourself in cash to work – unless you call three computer engineers to come and help you. Even then you wouldn't be able to do it if you had a Mac...

Ever since the dawn of "democracy" in post-Communist Bulgaria the Central Elections Commission, the state body that organises, directs and controls the holding of elections in this country, has failed to produce a credible list of living Bulgarians who are of voting age and should, consequently, have voting rights. The number of "dead souls" varies from election to election, but is usually in the tens of thousands. Against this background it remains unclear how a system of e-voting can be implemented at all, providing no one knows who exactly has the right to vote in the first place.

As Bulgaria slides further into the economic crisis prompted by the government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic the issue of Bulgarian expat voting rights seems bound to reemerge, possibly ahead of the next general election which, some political scientists say, may come earlier. The discussion, if any, does not concern the right of Bulgarians abroad to vote at all – although perhaps it should. Instead, it focuses on how to make life easier for them, technically, when they do want to cast their ballots. Against the backdrop of the almost total failure of the Bulgarian civil service to modernise itself this seems like an arduous task. 


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