How the established parties try to get rid of their competitors for the European elections

by Christian Geiselmann, 3/4/2009

Sofia. On June 7 the elections for the European Parliament will be held. The young Bulgarian green party “Zelenite”, founded in 2008, is currently preparing for the election campaign. And they are under pressure indeed: Bulgarian parliamentary elections are scheduled for about one month later only.

“Zelenite” (“The Greens”) has been founded by people involved in a number of nongovernmental and ecological organisations who, after several years work, have come to the conclusion that political pressure is necessary in order to sustainably implement their aims.

One of their most important aims is a fundamental reform of the Bulgarian state system. No wonder: executive, legislature and judiciary in Bulgaria are hardly working. Their performance is so bad, that the European Union has recently stopped payments of nearly 500 million euros.

„Zelenite“ wants to change this state of things, and to this effect has drawn up a detailed reform programme during the last months, called „Give the state back to the citizens“.

„Just a few youngsters“

When the party was registered in 2008, none of the established political parties considered it as a real danger to its position. “Let them do, they are just a few youngsters” was the common opinion. In the meantime and in spite of the scarcity of means and manpower, however, “Zelenite” have been able to build up a membership of nearly 7000.

Bulgarians have come to notice that a new political force is in the making, an organisation which is fundamentally different from the political establishment that has been dominating Bulgarian politics for the last 20 years: Political parties which are financed by “businessmen”, who are making their money primarily in the shadow economy characterised by corruption and mafiotic structures.

„Zelenite“ by contrast are committed to a grass roots democratic ideal. Their leading personnel is made up of young, educated Bulgarians who have spent time in other European countries and who from this experience have gathered the courage and inspiration for their political commitment.

People queue to give their signatures

In order to participate in the European elections, „Zelenite“ have to present until end of April 15000 signatures of Bulgarians who declare that they do not oppose the party’s wish to participate in the elections.

While other parties’ strategies to procure signatures are somewhat unclear, “Zelenite” collects these in the streets and on the large squares of Sofia. Much interest is shown by Sofiots in the tents and at the tables where the party informs the by-passers of its aims and programs; and people queue to add their signature.

“Zelenite” thus enjoys the spontaneous sympathy of the Bulgarian population, large parts of which do not participate in the elections because of the general frustration caused by the circumstance that none of the established political parties does offer a real alternative to the current practice of corruption, nepotism, and old secret-service networks that so much damages Bulgarian society and not least Bulgarian economy. Many consider “Zelenite“ the first foundation of a really democratic party since a long time ago.

Due to its relative success, the established parties have come to notice the threat that „Zelenite“ poses to their political power. Hence a bill was pushed with astonishing speed through parliament and accepted by the end of March which more than tripled the sum that parties have to deposit when participating in the election: it was augmented from 15000 leva (about 7500 euros) to 50000 leva (about 25000 euros). Without payment of this sum a party cannot be registered for the elections by the Central Electoral Committee.

200 times a minimal wage

For „Zelenite“ this is a bitter blow. The party has little problems to collect the 15000 signatures. But as a party without connections into the world of business it can rely only on membership fees and small donations. And what from a Western European perspective may seem to be a tolerable sum is in Bulgaria equivalent to 200 times a minimum wage.

No other European country has a comparably high financial barrier for participation in the European elections. In most countries no deposit is necessary at all. The Netherlands require the highest deposit (11500 euros), but this is quite an exception. And comparing the wage levels in the Netherlands and in Bulgaria it becomes clear how great an obstacle the established parties in Bulgaria have decided to put in the way of democratic competition. The timing of the decision just two months before the elections is equally telling about the intentions of its initiators.

Politically minded Bulgarians thus once again have to shake their heads in view of the situation their country is in. “This is no democracy, it is an dictatorship” is an often heard comment.

A dirty business

But most citizens don’t care anymore: they are used to comparable strategies and take them to be normal. “Politics is a dirty business” is the answer of most Bulgarians when asked why they do not get involved in politics.

Those who are active are enraged and ask: „How is something like this possible in Europe?“ – “This decision contradicts the basic laws of political fairness and even of common decency”, says Andrej Kovachev, one of three chairpersons of “Zelenite”. “We thought that in Europe such a procedure would be impossible – but we are obviously still far away from being in Europe.”

Zelenite’s problem is: Even if it decides to appeal against the bill, be it at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the decision will be too late for making a participation in the elections possible.

Hence the party tries to raise the 50000 Leva in the form of donations. But for the citizens who donate this has a bitter aftertaste: According to Bulgarian law a party does only get back its deposit if it gets more than 2 per cent of the votes. Otherwise the money is being held back for “charitable purposes”. That means the money would be lost for the party and cannot be used for maintaining its activities after the elections, although donations were meant explicitly to support the party.

Sign a supporting list – and loose your job?

And there is yet another obstacle for small parties running for elections: People who want to support some party with their signature have to give their unique ID number, too. For registering with the Central Election Committee, the parties must hand out not only the signatures but also an Excel sheet with all the names and IDs entered. This makes it all too easy for members of the big parties, who have their representatives in the committee, to share the lists by simply copying the files. This way, the full list of signatories may be sent, for instance, to municipalities held by party comrades.

No wonder many people hesitate to sign supporting lists. Especially in small towns or villages there is hardly any other employer than the municipality. Sign the list – and loose your job; or get into any other kind of trouble. This is too high a risk for many Bulgarians who otherwise would be likely to support one of the small parties.

Andrej Kovachev: “This is what democracy looks like in Bulgaria – in the year 2009, two years after achieving EU-membership.”


Christian Geiselmann is a journalist and researcher living in Sofia (Bulgaria) and Munich (Germany). „Zelenite“ publish this article on their website with his consent.