The petition-driven referendum was held to determine whether the town of Obzor and six adjacent villages should administratively break away from Nessebar on the Black Sea coast and form a new municipality. The tense relations between local authorities in Nessebar as well as the reports of attempts to tamper with voters’ registration and the administrative pressure put on local people and small businesses gave BAPCI a reason to suspect that the referendum might not be free and fair, and that people could be discouraged from voting.
BAPCI decided that it would be necessary to observe the referendum process to safeguard its integrity and to increase public confidence in it. However, the process of registering the observers at the Central Election Commission did not go as smoothly as expected. The Commission did not send out the registration forms in time and did not clarify what was needed for registration. Finally, only two days before the referendum and with the informal help of a Central Election Commission employee, BAPCI managed to register nine observers.
Three observers oversaw the process for three days to observe the preparation of polling stations, the dispatch of ballot papers, the conduct of polling, and the counting. On the voting day, there was one observer at each polling station and six observers worked from morning till late evening to make sure that the ballot papers were handed over to the Municipal Election Commission without irregularities. It turned out that on the voting day, the Facebook profile of BAPCI Chairperson and Democracy International Board Member, Dr. Daniela Bozhinova served as a major information source for several media outlets that were reporting on the referendum.
The observers noticed five irregularities in the referendum process. An irregularity in printing out the voters’ lists for two villages was corrected immediately after it was pointed out. Secondly, in the early morning of the voting day some Covid-19 hygiene measures were neglected by people gathering in front of the polling station in Obzor. This was also corrected after Bozhinova had posted photos on Facebook. The third irregularity was related to the slowness of the voting process, which led the observers to assume that polling station workers who were recruited by the mayor of Nessebar were trying to discourage people from voting. However, it turned out that the workers were slow because of inexperience. Many of them were replacing more experienced workers who had stepped down in the fear of a Covid-19 infection. Fourthly, the mayor of Nessebar had not complied and published a legally required note with the most important information regarding the referendum. This note should be displayed in public in the localities taking part in the referendum and published in the local media. Lastly, one observer noticed the mayor of one of the villages visiting the polling place several times, but the polling station staff did not agree with the claim.
The observers made a list of recommendations based on their findings and handed it over to the Central Election Commission. According to the recommendations, there should be more information available to the public before a referendum. Public debate should also be encouraged so that citizens are better aware of the consequences of a yes or no vote and can make an informed voting decision. Polling station workers should receive better training to avoid delays in the voting process. In the light of the approaching parliamentary election in Bulgaria, the observers recommend better adherence to the Covid-19 hygiene measures. Finally, the Central Election Commission’s procedure of accrediting observers should be reformed completely, and the Commission should communicate better with applicants.
Despite the observed irregularities, the observers declared that the referendum was free, fair and safe, and that it reflected the will of the voters. The proposal of Obzor and the adjacent villages separating from Nessebar was accepted because 73 % of voters were in favour of it and because the turnover of 76 % clearly exceeded the required 40 %.
Article photo courtesy of Daniela Bozhinova