Bulgarians know well that “Buying and Selling Votes is a Crime,” but views on who the main culprits are depend on social affinities.
by Michael J. Jordan and Ognyan Isaev
RAZGRAD, Bulgaria | The urgent call pipes into Rayna Dzhipova’s cell phone as she drives through the Bulgarian countryside. “They’re giving away cheese in Vladimirovtsi!” she exclaims, flooring the accelerator toward the remote village in the country’s northeast. Dashing across bumpy rural roads, past sunflower fields and donkey-drawn carts, she hopes to catch the vote-buyers red-handed.
During the 5 July parliamentary elections, Dzhipova has an unusual role: roving watchdog, patrolling the anticipated “hotspots” heavily populated by ethnic Turks and Roma – a favorite target of vote-buyers. While the vote-selling phenomenon cuts across ethnic and economic lines here, Turks are typically pressured by their community to vote for the ethnic-Turkish party, and the Roma – many of whom are destitute and hold few hopes that any party will improve their lot – are particularly vulnerable.
“I tell people, ‘You cannot blame anyone for your situation if you haven’t used your right and voted,’ ” says Dzhipova, 23, an ethnic Bulgarian who hails from the Turkish-majority city of Razgrad.
With the help of monitors like Dzhipova, the European Union’s poorest and reputedly most corrupt member has finally produced a rare bit of good news for both Bulgaria and Brussels. According to a newly released report by the Civil Society Coalition for a Free and Democratic Vote, public awareness and high turnout – some 60 percent – successfully diluted the corrosive effect of vote-buying this time around.
“This practice of creeping corporate authoritarianism was about to terminally conquer the state and would have done so had the powers of the oligarchic status quo won the election,” wrote Ognyan Minchev, chairman of Transparency International-Bulgaria, in an e-mail. “Today we don’t have certainty this practice will end, but we do have the tangible victory of a majority of citizens over the attempt to trade their free will for the will of the mafia and the oligarchy.”
However, while the elections went much better than expected, much work remains.
Only a month before the July vote, the Civil Society Coalition had bemoaned the rampant “purchased” and “controlled” votes that tarnished the European Parliament elections. Secret cash was pumped into campaigns, and some workers reportedly saw salaries delayed until they’d voted.
Surveys also indicate that for as little as 20 leva (about 10 euros) – or items like grilled meat, a bag of sugar, or cooking oil – some 30 percent of voters are willing to sell their ballot.
Every party is charged with perpetrating the practice. In June, for example, leading industrial tycoon Hristo Kovachki was accused of pressuring his miners to vote for the new party he backed, LIDER. The implication was: a vote for anyone else may cost you your job.
Vote-buying is just the tip of the corruption iceberg in Bulgaria.
In recent years, the Balkan country of 8 million has seen untamed graft of countless millions in EU assistance, and gangland violence has claimed up to 150 lives – without a single conviction. After repeated warnings, Brussels slapped Sofia last November with an unprecedented penalty for a new member, freezing hundreds of millions of euros in aid, a serious blow for the poorest EU state. In September the new prime minister, Boyko Borisov, received the welcome news that most of the funds will be gradually restored.
Even as Brussels breathed down Sofia’s neck for dramatic improvement, the chicanery continued. In the run-up to the July elections, the Socialist-led government suddenly raised pensions, unveiled infrastructure projects, and paved rural roads.
Its coalition partner, the Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms – known in Bulgarian by its acronym, DPS – banked on tens of thousands of Bulgarian-born Turks returning from Turkey to ancestral villages as “election tourists,” or simply voting in some 120 polling stations set up in Turkey.
Meanwhile, groups like the Civil Society Coalition launched public-awareness campaigns, and Transparency International-Bulgaria trained monitors like Dzhipova nationwide. A network of young Roma, all of them former interns in parliament, handed out brochures and T-shirts, and took to the airwaves with a message they said was not just for Roma: “I Don’t Sell My Vote.” Instead, they were trying to encourage honest voting for more accountable authorities.
“Money you take may buy bread for four days,” read their pamphlets. “But the next four years, people in government will make their bread on your back.”
The situation grew so bad that campaign advertisements were required to carry the warning, “Buying and Selling Votes is a Crime.” The punishment if caught was toughened to five years in prison and a 10,000- to 20,000-leva fine.
The problem is that police must catch vote-sellers in the act, which is nearly impossible, says Rozalina Dimitrova, a reporter for the national daily Trud. Dimitrova, who covers city politics in the Black Sea city of Varna, became an election observer herself. But she says she’s frustrated that “nothing ever changes.”
“It’s really hard to find evidence for the simple reason that soliciting votes is done in secret,” she says. “When I see vote-trading happening, I call the police or the regional electoral committee. The police arrive, survey the area, but if they don’t find anything, they leave. Under these circumstances, my call becomes pointless.”
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
Rather than explore the likely causes of vote-selling – poverty and disillusionment – the media tend to frame it in ethnic terms. For example, days before the July election, the 24 Hours newspaper publicized a sting operation in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, in which they posed as party activists and allegedly arranged with a Romani leader to buy 500 votes.
Such reports feed perceptions among ordinary Bulgarians that the vote-buying plague is not nationwide but relegated to their troublesome minorities.
“Only Gypsies and other weak people would sell their vote,” says Petar, an octogenarian sitting in the Varna bazaar, drinking a midday beer with a quartet of friends. “Those who sell their votes, sell their soul. We have an ideology, and no one can buy our votes.”
Nearby, a fruit seller barely looks up from stacking a pyramid of peaches, but weighs in: “Only the minorities, the Gypsies and Turks, sell their vote. I don’t sell mine. Even if they offer me 200 leva, I still wouldn’t take it.”
Other Bulgarians, though, paint a picture far from black and white.
Vesselina, a 65-year-old clerk in a children’s clothing store, says poverty, not ethnicity, is key. She herself works to supplement the pension and survivor benefits she receives for herself and her deceased husband.
“Buying votes is the ultimate sign of political arrogance and neglect of people’s problems,” she says. “Votes are bought from people who have fallen below the poverty line and are trying to survive. It’s not true that only the Roma sell their votes.”
The disillusionment extends to the better-off as well.
In Shumen, southeast of Razgrad, a teacher named Javor describes the reaction of his neighbor, a successful construction engineer, before the European parliamentary elections.
“He says, ‘I’m not going to vote unless someone pays me. I don’t see any point,’ ” Javor recalls. “He wouldn’t let his wife, either, so they just went to the beach for the day.”
Nevertheless, Bulgaria’s Roma, who number anywhere from 400,000 to 800,000, remain prone to payoffs. Unemployment is rife, as are low expectations of government. However, Nikolai Nikolayev, a Romani activist working on social-integration projects in Varna, says it takes two to tango.
“Roma sell their vote because someone wants to buy it – and this someone is not Roma,” he says. “The question of buying and selling votes is like the chicken or the egg. What comes first: the supply or demand for the votes? The demand, of course. If someone wants to buy a vote at any price, he’ll get it. I’d never sell my vote. Not only is it now punishable by law, but it’s immoral.”
“GIVE ME ONE REASON NOT TO TAKE IT”
In a place like the Shumen mahala, or Romani quarter, families with three or four kids each inhabit the clay-and-brick shanties. The neighborhood has previously been accused of vote-selling. Yet on the eve of July’s elections, disaffected residents described how two weeks earlier, the Socialist-led city administration proffered what amounted to an open bribe. After several years of empty promises, the city finally poured and steamrolled blacktop over their rock-strewn roads.
“It’s good there are elections,” says Ali, a 50-something resident, admiring the new tarmac. “Otherwise, no one will ever remember people like us from the neighborhood.”
Ali is among the few employed here, in one of the handful of occupations Roma say are available to them: he’s a street sweeper for the town. Poorly paid, he’s not immune to bribery: “If they offer me money I’ll take it. Why not? No one turns down a free lunch.”
Roma here say they’d pocket anything the local bigwigs give them – but would still vote their preference. One woman, Magdalena, bemoans the 70 leva per month welfare payments for her two children, including the frail 4-year-old son gleefully playing with a straw broom. He suffers from asthma, needs a costly inhaler, and, says his mother, is little more than “skin and bones.”
“But no party will make our lives better,” she says. “They all want me to vote for them, but no one cares about me. If they give me 20 or 30 leva, give me one reason not to take it. Look at my situation. I’d take it, but this doesn’t mean I’d vote for whoever gave me the money.”
That is, of course, one flaw in the vote-buying process: the vote is secret. One way around this, say observers, has been the use of cell-phone cameras. For example, some parties bribe community leaders to deliver them hundreds of votes. Enforcers hand mobile phones to voters, who enter the booth, vote, photograph the ballot as evidence, then exit to receive their payoff outside.
Likewise, Roma sometimes have tabs at local grocery stores, leaving their official identification cards as collateral. Eager politicians will pay off the modest sums, keep the ID, hand the phone to the voter to ensure the right box is ticked, check the evidence, then return the ID.
Elsewhere, money may not always be needed; communal pressure may be enough.
Observers say patriarchal communities like the ethnic Turks are conditioned to vote for their own – like the ethnic-Turkish DPS – especially through fear-mongering about Bulgarian nationalists. This job is made easier by the far-right party Ataka, whose leader, Volen Siderov, says only Ataka can “save the nation from extinction” from threats posed by Bulgaria’s Turks and Roma.
On 5 July, in the ethnic-Turk village of Kamenar, a dozen men, including Mayor Ahmed Salimov, are gathered just a few paces from the steps to the polling station. An election official soon emerges to shoo the men away: election law states that large groups must keep a distance from polling stations, lest the gathering be perceived as a form of voter intimidation.
Undaunted, the men sing the praises of DPS, even as Salimov complains his village of 750 souls endures 90 percent joblessness. Yet they don’t blame the Turkish party, which was a longtime member of the ruling coalition and routinely accused of corruption, including theft of EU funds. Instead, the men here speak as if the top priority were ethnic defense, not bread on the table.
“The Turks know their rights and ideals,” says the mayor. “This is why they vote DPS.”
DPS captured more than 14 percent of the vote in July, and remains an influential force in Bulgarian politics – with a hand in lucrative development projects.
Similarly, the Varna mahala, known as Maksuda, is home to a unique community that describes itself as Turkish, but whom other Roma refer to as Muslim Roma. They speak Bulgarian and Turkish, but no one admits to speaking Romani. Few outsiders wander in here, as crowds on the sidewalk offer a few hostile stares at strangers. The road is broken and potholed, yet the houses, many of them half-finished, are painted in cheerful colors – green, yellow, red. In the local DPS office, a crowd of men grows agitated at the mere mention of Ataka and Siderov, describing him as another Hitler.
“They’d turn us into soap!” bellows one man. “DPS is the only party that protects us.”
Later, another man concedes that in the past, other parties dropped into the neighborhood, offering sausages in exchange for votes. “Then the next time we’d see them was four years later,” he says. “They can lie to us, but now they don’t even have the guts to show up here anymore.”
Despite the modest signs of improvement, the prime forces for corruption remain in place, says Ruslan Stefanov, an analyst with the Center for Study of Democracy in Sofia.
“From a market perspective, there’s enough demand and supply,” he says. “At the end of the day, vote-buying reflects our level of development and that Bulgaria is not yet a mature democracy.”
Yet activists like Minchev, of Transparency International-Bulgaria, vow to fight on.
“The battle for fair and transparent civil representation will not be a single-act performance,” he says. “It will continue and be part of the efforts to consolidate and develop Bulgaria’s democratic system.”
Michael J. Jordan is a Bratislava-based correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.
Ognyan Isaev is a freelance journalist in Shumen, Bulgaria.
To view the original article, click here.