Rule of law Bulgaria

Backgrounder: Bulgaria’s elections and the rule of law

Bulgarians head to the polls on 4 April 2021 to elect a new parliament. DRI’s Jil Prillwitz sat down with re:constitution 2020/2021 fellow Angelina Atanasova, currently hosted by the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, to discuss the elections and the country’s rule of law problems.

Last summer, Bulgaria was rocked by major protests about the country’s rule of law issues, which include corruption, the unchecked powers of the Prosecutor General and judicial independence. Has the situation evolved since then?

No, the situation within the country remains largely unchanged. The controversial Prosecutor General, Ivan Geshev, has not resigned, as protesters demanded. However, there were some important developments at the European level.

The European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) recently rejected seven out of ten Bulgarian candidates for the posts of European Delegated Prosecutor, who investigate and prosecute potential crimes against the EU budget for the EPPO. It stated that the candidates, nominated by the Bulgarian authorities, were lacking relevant experience. The EPPO also underscored how important it was for candidates to be of high independence and moral integrity.

Additionally, earlier this year the European Court of Justice ruled that European arrest warrants issued by the Bulgarian prosecution service are invalid. The reason was that they are not compatible with minimum fair trial standards under EU law.

These developments are significant because many Bulgarians did not feel supported by the EU during last year’s protests. There was an impression that Brussels was closing its eyes to Bulgaria’s long-standing issues, especially in comparison to its active engagement with the situations in Hungary and Poland. These recent decisions raise hope for a change of direction.

Are rule of law issues coming up in the political campaign?

Last year’s protests brought more public attention to the rule of law and corruption. In the past, these were mostly issues for experts and civil society activists. Political parties now have an incentive to attract voters by focusing on these topics.

One party that does so is Democratic Bulgaria, an electoral alliance of three parties that is co-led by Hristo Ivanov, a former Minister of Justice. His coalition is pushing for judicial reforms and has a lot of expertise on this topic, both among its members and leaders. The governing GERB party, whose Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has been one of the main targets of last year’s protests, also pledges to continue its efforts to build a just, independent and transparent judiciary.

What impact has covid-19 had on these elections?

At the beginning of March, most restrictions were eased in Bulgaria: restaurants, bars and malls were all reopened. This has since led to an uptick in infections. Bulgarian hospitals are full, and the situation is deteriorating. Even though stricter measures are now back in place, this may still mean that many people will be afraid to go out and vote, which would decrease the turnout.

Bulgaria does not have a tradition of postal voting. Its introduction was considered for this election but ultimately rejected, amongst others because of logistical concerns, such as the unreliability of the Bulgarian postal service. Bulgarians who will be in mandatory quarantine on Election Day, on the other hand, have an opportunity to sign up for mobile ballot boxes to be sent to their homes.

The European Commission published its first EU-27 Rule of Law Report last year. Do you think the Bulgaria report accurately assesses the situation in the country? How could the next edition be strengthened?

Since different interests must be balanced in this type of report, it is rather mellow on certain points. For example, while the 2020 protests are mentioned a few times, the fact that the resignation of the Prosecutor General was a central demand is never explained. Nevertheless, the report outlines that institutional change in the Bulgarian Prosecution Service is clearly needed to ensure a reliable system of checks and balances.

My colleague Miriana Ilcheva, Senior Analyst in the Law Programme at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, also highlighted that more attention should be paid to the current media environment in Bulgaria. The country consistently scores lowest within the EU on freedom of the press, a serious concern for accountability and rule of law.

What is next for the rule of law in Bulgaria after the elections? Which issues should be priorities for the incoming government?

The ruling GERB party is leading in the polls and looks likely to win the election. However, the next parliament might be more fragmented, due to several newly formed parties. This could be a good thing. Even if the ruling coalition will still be led by GERB, the opposition would provide a better check against the government from inside parliament, rather than on the streets outside.

It may also lead to much-needed judicial reforms in Bulgaria, even if compromises will have to be made to achieve this goal. In addition, any new government would need to tackle the persisting concerns of high-level corruption, enhance accountability on how EU funds are spent, and address the deteriorating media environment.

Democracy Reporting International (DRI) works to improve public understanding of the rule of law in the EU as part of the re:constitution programme funded by Stiftung Mercator. Sign up to DRI’s newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to find out more about the rule of law in Europe.

Photo credit: Лорд Бъмбъри /CC BY-SA 4.0