To start with the good news: It seems that Bulgarians will have a say on a substantial national policy issue at last. The fall of the totalitarian rule and the democratic changes that followed did not bring forth any form of citizens’ inclusion in the policy-making process. Even EU accession, which normally has generated referenda elsewhere, was not put to the popular vote by the Bulgarian political elite. So, if the Belene referendum happens, it will be the first nationwide vote in Bulgaria in a period of 40 years.
Another piece of good news seems to be the fact that for the first time in Bulgaria a referendum is being called through signature gathering instead of a top-down procedure. However, only an organization such as the former communist party, well branched out and sufficiently funded is capable of collecting 500,000 and more signatures from a population of 7 million within a very limited period of 3 months, as the national law requires. So, here comes the bad news: direct decision-making rules have not been designed to empower underrepresented civil society groups in Bulgaria. With this conclusion a legal hurdle regarding participation quorum comes into play: the referendum turnout has to equal or exceed the voter turnout of the last national parliamentary election, i.e. 60%, in order to become binding.
Let’s turn again to the positive note – the referendum may open the door to deliberation and public debate on vital issues of the energy sector. This will be a chance to unveil myths like the one about the low price of nuclear energy and take an honest stand on inefficiency, monopoly and corruption. Will this possibility become a reality and will Bulgarian voters be able to make an informed decision?
The answer is that the level of information and quality of public debate will depend greatly on media pluralism. And this is not exactly a strength of Bulgarian democracy. Over the last 5-6 years the OSCE has increasingly criticised Bulgaria for the dominance of paid coverage of election campaigns in electronic and print media, and in particular the public broadcasters. International monitors have been observing “a limited pluralism of views and the de facto absence of a critical debate in the media”.
In light of the aforesaid the chances are bleak for a true and inclusive public debate to unfold before the referendum will take place. There are more chances for the referendum to add to the practice of misuse of popular vote by the political establishment in post-totalitarian countries. A fresh example of such a misuse is the Romanian referendum of July 29 which put the hot potato of presidential recall (and the party battles behind it) into the hands of the electors. In the case of Bulgaria, the upcoming referendum is expected to be used by the Bulgarian Socialist Party as an electorate-mobilising strategy in anticipation of the national parliamentary elections 2013
The sad truth is that in post-totalitarian states such as Bulgaria and Romania the existing voter-unfriendly mechanisms for direct decision-making serve nobody but the entrenched actors of the representative system, i.e. the major political parties.
To finish on a more positive note, we shall hope and rely on the wisdom of the common people for the outcome of the vote on nuclear power in Bulgaria. But first of all we have to see the successful completion of the referendum qualification procedure, which is expected in the next 3 months.
Text by Daniela Bozhinova
Daniela Bozhinova is a direct democracy researcher, writer and activist. She is the Vice-chair of Democracy International, the global coalition for direct democracy at all political levels, www.democracy-international.org