Mobilizing Roma Voters in Bulgaria
By Daniela Mihailova & Iva Lazarova
We spoke with two advocates in Bulgaria about their efforts to build a free and fair election process for Roma. Both organizations are supported by the Open Society Foundations.
Daniela Mihailova, Equal Opportunities Initiative
Ahead of the EU elections, we are organizing cluster groups in four voting locations in the country with very high Roma populations to train Roma to be civil monitors to guard against electoral fraud, report misuse of votes, ensure that citizens can vote in a free environment and encourage participation not just during the election but after.
We work right in the heart of Fakulteta, Sofia's biggest Roma district, where word travels fast, so we can effectively mount a broad information campaign.
We hope that by creating these groups, they will solidify, live on after the election and become institutionalized so that there can be increased Roma political participation, more knowledge of political and voting rights, and make it more easy to lobby the government to put Roma issues on the agenda. We also continue to carry out strategic litigation focused on human rights issues and discrimination on grounds of ethnicity whereby incidents of extremist and defamatory language can be challenged in court and if successful, penalties levied on the offender.
Historically, Roma have been quite active and effective in civil society but mostly left out and unaccepted in mainstream politics. Twenty years ago levels of education amongst Roma were extremely low but now the first generations are already starting to graduate from university and develop a good social standing which can work towards changing public perception.
During the last elections in Kyustsendil, there were no voting facilities provided in the Roma area so residents had to travel a long way into the center of town. When one colleague helped by driving some locals to the polling station, he was arrested under suspicion of "carousel voting," while ironically the individuals who were actually doing this went unnoticed.
Our work is an uphill struggle, but there are far more challenges for the voters themselves.
Iva Lazarova, Institute for Public Environment Development
We work hard on our advocacy campaigns related to the free and fair election process. We are determined to secure amendments in the Bulgarian election legislation which will ensure such a process. We have a large network of volunteers observing the elections.
Recently we have observed the emergence of new “nonpartisan networks” that act as election observers. These networks actually have very close connections with some of the main political parties and can be considered as political supporters, who will receive money from the parties on the election day. If this practice continues it may very well become a new legal mechanism to buy votes.
We will know more about the threat this poses after the European elections and next year after Bulgaria’s municipal elections. This practice is worrying because nonpartisan observers are crucial for free and fair elections—through their monitoring, they can either legitimize the fair conduct of elections, or deem them as problematic because of fraudulent practices. We do not ask the politicians if the voting process was free from violations, we ask the observers because they are deeply engaged with the process and should be impartial.
Bulgaria still suffers from systemic corruption more than any other country in the EU. Our problem began with the collapse of Communism and the slow process of dividing the ownership of property from public to private. For example, if you want to start a business in a local community, the bureaucracy can sometimes take years. But if you bribe officials it speeds up the process, so many people unfortunately do.
Lom, a poor town on the Danube with around 30,000 people, half of whom are Roma, provides a perfect example. Here political parties have been working with money lenders who give flexibility to residents with debts in return for voting a certain way. In some cases, local mafia visit homes and directly intimidate voters. In other situations, we have heard of shop owners who threaten their staff with dismissal unless they vote for their party. High-profile media coverage of these events is crucial to put pressure on these offenders.
In 2011 we sued the Central Election Commission as they did not provide any information about how they make decisions and in that particular case we needed to check some of the most controversial protocols for registering political parties. We failed in court but then we started a media campaign to lobby for greater transparency and now they have to livestream all of their meetings, keep an archive of all of the outcomes, and publicly explain all their decisions.
Our network of observers, as well as local people around the country are worried that some police in small towns in Bulgaria are too close with politicians and too familiar with different fraudulent practices, so we are also proposing that during the elections, police from certain regions should exchange their patrols with other regions, to remove any suspicion of intimidation.
We are particularly proud of our online platfom—www.fairelections.eu—which enables people to anonymously report electoral fraud, which we verify and post on our website. Thus we map voting irregularities and incidents across the country, including hate speech, for example.
Our goal is to support a strong group of social activists who share common values, integrity, and understanding for the problems that their local communities face, but also for their role in a society that will never become better without their active participation in it.
We are a large, high-profile organization; it is harder to intimidate us. But for voters in small towns, the risks are much higher. This is why we need to develop a network of educated people with integrity who can spread the message of democracy and create a critical mass.
Daniela Mihailova is legal director of the Equal Opportunities Initiative Association.
Iva Lazarova is the open data program director for the Institute for Public Environment Development.