Buying an election, Bulgarian style

As Bulgarians head to the polls today, their politicians do not have much to offer other than money for their votes.

The Pariament election in Bulgaria.
"The new cabinet will not be able to introduce any meaningful change in Bulgaria and would just continue supporting the corrupt behaviour of its members," writes Mariya Petkova [EPA]

In 1884, the great Bulgarian writer, Aleko Konstantinov, wrote a feuilleton to express his indignation at the electoral practices he witnessed during the parliamentary elections that year. In “During the Elections in Svishtov”, he describes how the governor of the province along with other administration officials and members of the Conservative party went around villages to practice “moral influence” over the villagers, convincing them to vote for them and putting pressure on the local mayors to arrange for that as well.

On the election day, only those voting for the Conservative party were allowed by the police to the ballot station, which secured their victory. At the end of his short feuilleton, Konstantinov asks himself the rhetorical question: “If this is what ‘moral influence’ looks like, what would be ‘immoral influence’?”

Today, 130 years later, Bulgarian politicians have set out to answer a question that was not meant to be answered. They have set out to demonstrate new, higher levels of what could be defined as “immoral” in election practices.

Immoral electoral influence

In early April, NovaTV broadcasted an investigation into buying of votes in Bulgaria and the schemes that were being prepared ahead of the elections. It showed footage made with a hidden camera during a seminar which instructed members of the newly formed movement “Orlov Most” how to buy votes (at $20 each). The movement was created by university students who supposedly participated in the February 2013 protests and who selected one-time football star Hristo Stoichkov as their leader.

It turned out, however, that this same movement which claims to have “toppled” the government of GERB Party with its participation in the demonstrations is financed by Emil Dimitrov, former MP from the same party. Dimitrov, who is the owner of the hotel in the town of Etropole, where the vote-selling seminar was held, has been implicated in a variety of scams with state-owned land and forests. He allegedly used EU regional development money to pay for game breeding in his privately-owned reserve and has even managed to get the world hunting record of a German aristocrat annulled through his scams.

NovaTV’s camera managed to also record the presence of the leader of VMRO, a far-right party, and the head of the CSKA fan club (one of Bulgaria’s big football teams) in Dimitrov’s hotel during the seminar.

Meanwhile, online platforms created to help curb illegal electoral practices have been flooded with signals from citizens across the country. Parties from across the political spectrum are getting implicated in any imaginable “immoral influence”: from paying for the issuance of identity cards for poor people from the slums to employees of a company being pressured and threatened with dismissal.

Private individuals have also taken it upon themselves to post on social networking websites photos and accounts exposing such practices. Earlier this month, the police arrested a number of individuals implicated in vote buying in two different cities, one of whom had a list of 800 registered voters.

However, the ability of the police in dealing with electoral crimes has been called into question. Earlier in March, the prime minister of the provisional government, Marin Raykov, called on police chiefs to demonstrate “lack of bias” and help ensure the fairness of the elections. But speculations about the involvement in illegal practices during the elections are already widely circulating.

One of the warning signs has been the fact that the GERB government which resigned in February 2013 made a great number of changes in leadership positions in police structures across the country. It is said that the newly appointed cadres would be loyal to GERB and support it during the elections.

The lack of trust in the police was also demonstrated when the prosecution sent the teams of the National Security Agency, instead of the police – a day before the polls – to break into a print shop after receiving a signal for violations by one of the contractor firms responsible for printing the ballots.

The prosecution said that a batch of 350,000 ballotswere discovered, while the owner of the shop claimed they were half that amount and were extras from the printing and were kept safely to be discarded after the elections, as stipulated in the regulations. The owner turned out to be a member of GERB. 

Fake Bulgaria ballots seized

War of smear campaigns     

As signals of vote-buying and voters’ extortion surfaced one after the other, the two parties leading in the polls put in a lot of effort to discredit each other in the media. In late March, the leader of BSP, Sergei Stanishev, submitted to the Prosecution Office a secret report describing the use of police resources illegally to wiretap politicians and other public figures.

Former Minister of Interior Tsvetan Tsvetanov (from GERB), who allegedly was at the core of the wiretapping scheme, rejected the accusations. GERB responded by taking evidence to the Prosecutor General that Sergei Stanishev manipulated the public procurement deal with a company responsible for making identification documents that match EU standards, awarding it to Siemens for a price of 116 million euros ($150m) instead of the initial 16 million euros ($20m).

The name of MEP Hannes Swoboda was also involved in the scandal (although he denied any connection to the case); he is married to a member of the Board of Directors of Siemens and supposedly encouraged the election of Stanishev as head of the Party of European Socialists.

As the prosecution started investigation into both cases, the wiretapping scandal exploded into even bigger proportions, as a secret recording was distributed to the media of an alleged conversation between GERB’s leader and former PM Boyko Borisov, his agriculture minister Miroslav Naidenov and Sofia prosecutor Nikolay Kokinov.

If the authenticity of the tape is proven (and if there is political will), the prosecution can charge all the three with a variety of crimes, including abuse of office and corruption.

In an hour and a half long conversation, the trio discusses the ongoing investigation into public procurement deals related to mediaand the name of Naidenov’s girlfriend and PR specialist Kristina Spassova (who at the age of 25 became incredibly wealthy within a short span of two years, according an investigation of “Sega” newspaper) is mentioned as involved in these schemes.

Apparently, the combination of man-of-power plus PR-girl is a winning one in employing political power for monetary gains, as the couple Sergei Stanishev-Monika Yosifovahas already demonstrated as well. Yosifova was involved in another scandal (also mentioned in the tape) with the controversial Austrian lobbyist Peter Hochegger who was hired for 1.5 million euros ($1.9m) by Stanishev’s government in 2008 to improve Bulgaria’s image in the EU; her company received 239,000 euros ($310,269) as a sub-contractor

A second recording of Boyko Borisov was sent to the media a few days before the elections; its authenticity also has not been verified. One can only imagine how many more secret tapes for the media and evidence for the prosecution would have been released if this election season had been longer than a month and a half.

In any case, while politicians put all their efforts to discredit their opponents, the Bulgarian public did not hear any serious political debate on enormous problems which the country is facing and which provoked mass protests across the country in February this year.

Electing the dirt

Today,nearly 7 million Bulgarians have the right to come out to vote for one of the many corrupt parties on offer this electoral season. How many of them would actually consider it worthwhile to choose who should have more access to power for the purposes of self-enrichment remains to be seen.

How many of those who do go out would not do so because they truly support a party will never be known, but their number might exceed NovaTV’s estimate of 150,000 who sold their vote and 600,000 who voted under pressure in 2011’s presidential vote. How many falsified ballots would enter the ballot stream will also remain unknown.

The election can go in two ways: either the “immoral influence” is going to acquire enough votes for one party to dominate or it would cut the margins so much that enemies might become coalition partners to put together a minority government as happened in Italy earlier this year.

Either way, the new cabinet will not be able to introduce any meaningful change in Bulgaria and would just continue supporting the corrupt behaviour of its members.

The only hope for the country right now is the protest movement that arose earlier this year and whom the politicians completely ignored. Its members have already warned that if any malpractice is observed during the electoral process, they will take to the streets. 

Mariya Petkova is a Bulgarian freelance journalist based in Cairo. She is currently completing a graduate degree at Oxford University. 

Follow her on Twitter: @mkpetkova

You can follow the editor on Twitter: @nyktweets