It’s election time in Bulgaria. Gangsters are running for office and voters are taking photos of their ballots to receive payoffs.
By Michael J. Jordan, Special to GlobalPost, July 4, 2009
SHUMEN, BULGARIA — Ognyan Isaev knows his fellow Roma — known derogatorily as “gypsies” — are stereotyped for a slew of unsavory habits. In his native Bulgaria, the poorest and most corrupt European Union member, they are often accused of freely selling their votes to the highest bidder.
So in the run-up to Sunday’s parliamentary elections, Isaev helped lead an “I Don’t Sell My Vote” campaign. He handed out T-shirts and hit the airwaves with a message he says is not just for the Roma.
Distributing fliers Friday in the downtown of this provincial city, Isaev wanted to remind Bulgarians, Roma and ethnic Turks alike of what is not just a Roma problem but a national affliction.
Whether the campaign will make a dent is unclear. Studies indicate that 30 percent of voters would be willing to sell their ballot for as little as 20 Bulgarian leva (about $14), or items like grilled meat, a bag of sugar or cooking oil. The situation has grown so bad that all campaign advertising must now note: “Buying and Selling of Votes is a Crime” — like cigarette packets reminding “Smoking Kills.”
It is this level of corruption, which extends far beyond the election, that is carrying Bulgaria to new depths.
In recent years, the country of 8 million has seen untamed graft claim countless millions in EU assistance. Organized crime is responsible for up to 150 murders, which Brusselss says has not led to a single conviction. After repeated warnings, Brussels slapped Sofia last November with an unprecedented penalty for a new member, withdrawing $315 million in aid, a serious blow for state.
“At the end of the day, vote-buying reflects our level of development and that Bulgaria is not yet a mature democracy,” said analyst Ruslan Stefanov, of the Center for Study of Democracy, in the capital, Sofia.
And it seems no one is immune from the vote-buying phenomenon — not the ruling coalition, not businesses and certainly not gangsters.
Several notorious gang members are running in the elections, seeking the immunity from prosecution that comes with a government post — a virtual “Get Out of Jail Free” card. The Socialist-led government, heirs to the ex-Communist party, has used its political power to suddenly raise pensions, unveil infrastructure projects and pave rural roads.
One coalition partner, representing the sizable Turkish minority, is banking on tens of thousands of Bulgarian-born Turks returning from Turkey to their home villages as “election tourists,” or staying in Turkey to vote in some 120 polling stations set up there.
Vote-buying requires more than cash: it needs community mechanisms. For example, one leading industrialist who heads a new party stands accused of pressing thousands of his employees to vote for him, or else. The Turkish party pressures its village brethren to vote in lock-step, arguing no one else will protect their interests against a growing anti-Turkish, far-right movement.
“The government’s job is to make life better, but if that doesn’t happen, then you either buy votes or lose power,” said Georgi Milkov, a community activist in the majority-Turkish city of Razgrad, who on Saturday was training local monitors in how to spot cheating in rural voting stations.
Elsewhere, in some Roma neighborhoods, various parties reportedly bribe community leaders to deliver them hundreds of votes. On occasion, enforcers will hand mobile phones to voters, who enter the booth, vote, photograph the ballot as evidence, then exit to receive their payoff outside.
Despite a practice that cuts across ethnic lines, Bulgarians tend to finger the Roma as prime culprits. One media outlet fueled the perception this week with a sting operation, posing as party activists who allegedly arranged with a Roma leader to buy 500 votes in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city.
“Only gypsies and other weak people would sell their vote,” said one Bulgarian octogenarian, Petar, while drinking beer with his friends in the open-air produce market in the Black Sea city of Varna. “Those who sell their votes, sell their soul. We have ideology, and no one can buy our votes.”
In the Shumen mahala — or Roma quarter — impoverished residents observed that the local Socialist-led city administration finally laid blacktop in their clay-and-brick shantytown just two weeks before the election, after promising it for years.
One Roma woman, Magdalena, notes that she receives only 70 leva per month ($50) in welfare for her two children, including her frail 4-year-old son gleefully playing with a straw broom. He suffers from asthma, his mother said, needs a costly inhaler, and is little more than “skin and bones.”
“I’d take the money if someone offered it,” she admitted. “No party will make our lives better.”
Up against such disillusionment, Isaev remains optimistic and continues handing out materials to encourage honest voting for more accountable authorities. “Money you take may buy bread for four days,” read the pamphlets. “But the next four years, people in government will make their bread on your back.”
“I don’t think we’ll have 100 percent success, but even 1 percent change is important for civil society,” Isaev said. “Every vote is like a raindrop, and 20 raindrops this time may become 200 next time, which may become a river, then a lake, then an ocean of democracy.”