The Observer Effect- Europe is watching

My experience in Bulgaria monitoring the parliamentary elections on 12 May served as a powerful reminder of what it is to be a Social Democrat and a European.

There is no escaping the fact that there was widespread corruption and fraud. It is astonishing that such practices still take place in 2013 in a European country (and an EU member).

A hundred of us from the Party of European Socialists, with countless other delegations from organisations like Transparency International, were sent to observe the elections. In the tradition of the Soviet style ‘Papers, please’ we were given a certificate by the Bulgarian foreign ministry explaining the situation. This was helpful given that the extent of my Bulgarian is now to be able to say ‘European Socialists’.

The main tool to fight against corruption in this case is bureaucracy, and the Bulgarians have developed a rigorous procedure to try and combat illegal and unfair practices. Despite the robust system there was still widespread abuse.

With my Bulgarian Socialist Party guide, Blago, a candidate, at the local BSP HQ in Sofia.
With my Bulgarian Socialist Party guide, Blago, a candidate, at the local BSP HQ in Sofia.

What I saw

I led a team in Sofia, tending up to 24 polling stations in 2 different schools. It would be tempting to say that my subjects for observation were well behaved, and indeed they were welcoming once I had shown my papers (in most cases they had never seen anything like it before), but most of the shady business happens before and after the voting.

The day before our arrival, 350,000 ballots were found, pre-marked in favour of the ruling conservative GERB party, in a printing warehouse. The owner of the press, who in a delightful coincidence was a GERB councillor, claimed that they had been printed accidentally. Those 350,000 were only fake ballots that were found. Who knows how many, suspected up to 700,000, had already been sent out? Enough to shift the nationwide vote by nearly 10%.

I may appear critical, but it must be stressed that while our PES mission, as well as the mission of all other international organisations, had a limited effect on the outcome, it had an effect. These elections were more free and more fair because we were there.

There are two key moments that I shall not forget from my experience. The first was inside a polling station. I was having a chat with a fellow observer from a minority party and had to leave to move on to the next station. As we parted, he shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you for your presence here today. It is important to us.’ That sentiment touched me deeply because it stoked a genuine feeling of solidarity between Europeans. That idea is often articulated blandly, but what I felt at that moment is a feeling that only those who are politically active, or who have fought for democracy, can really empathise with.

The second was following the ‘Mobile Ballot Box’. Proxy and postal voting are banned, given the risks involved. Instead, a team literally carries around a ballot box making house calls to those that were granted permission. I have to admit a rush of excitement as my car followed a police car which was in turn followed by the election team, finding myself at the back of a three-car motorcade, but the serious part came as I watched a nurse prop up a bed-bound old man who could not sit up by himself. As we waited outside the room for a moment while the man made his decision I remarked at what a good idea the house calls were. The head of the committee replied, ‘Yes. Our people have a right to vote.’

It may seem like a statement of the obvious reading the words by themselves, but witnessing and thinking about it all, I was very nearly moved to tears. It was an immeasurably profound sentence. I was helping people, even if only in the slightest possible way, to exercise their human rights. I thought about this time and time again, as I watched others put their ballot through. Our people have a right to vote. It is a cliché to say ‘people fought and died for it’ but how many really appreciate the right? I certainly do, particularly now.

At the count, I made the polling station committee noticeably nervous (one person whispered as such to me). I did not help put anyone at ease by my entirely unpredictable checks and questions, the purpose of which was purely to show that Europe is watching. The air was tense when the amount of votes found did not match the amount of names on the register. The dozen observers watched in stony silence as they were counted again twice, until an explanation could be found. A blank ballot (no stamps, no votes) had mysteriously found its way into the box.

The committee were peculiarly self-conscious as the votes were organised into categories. Special effort was made to show me every single ballot that they intended to declare as invalid, or about which there was a dispute. I did not get involved, being a mere observer, but I did conclude that in many cases they simply lack technical expertise, looking as they so often were to me for guidance.

In my particular polling station, the BSP won by one vote in an area traditionally strong for the Socialists. It would be, I think, lazy to note that down under a simple change in the political wind.

As the night drew on and the results trickled in, GERB were nowhere to be seen. As the party with the (supposedly) most votes, they should have been the first to come out and declare victory. Instead, Sergei Stanishev the leader of the BSP and the PES was the first to address the nation, accompanied by his #1 candidates from each of the 31 constituencies, to decry the state of affairs.

At the end of it all, the BSP still managed to come a close second, with only four parties (of nearly 50) meeting the 4% required to enter Parliament. Although I learned some important lessons about democracy  given the widespread abuse, the best we can say is that ‘it could have been worse.’

Appendix:

The Voting Process

A voter enters the polling booth, he gives his ID card to the staff member (so already it is a more robust process than in the UK) who checks it against the register. Another staff member stamps the ballot paper with a stamp that has been intentionally damaged so that it can be considered unique to that polling station. the voter is shown the ballot paper (about a metre long with nearly 50 possible options), and the voter enters the booth.

In the booth, they must place a perfect X in the correct place. It has to be an X, not any other kind of mark (even a + sign) or else it might be identifiable. It also has to be in blue pen.

The voter then has his ballot stamped a second time before placing it in the ballot box, which is transparent plastic (to deter ballot-stuffing) and covered in paper seals.

He is required to sign his name against the register (to prevent multiple voting and ghost voting) before being returned his ID card and leaving.

The Counting Process

Voting ends at precisely 20h00 and the doors are locked. The windows are locked. The whole room is sealed. Nobody gets in or out until the process ends (several hours later).

The ballot box is opened and sorted, then at the end of the count the committee members sign an official protocol which is photocopied, each photocopy is signed and stamped, and given to party observers. This part of the process was excruciatingly long and tedious, made more so in many polling stations because scanner/printers ran out of ink! 

Further Reading

The PES has an article here describing how the fraud takes place. Read here.

The PES also has a brief statement on the results. Read here.

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