‘Elections are like doing the laundry. You have to wash your clothes more often to make sure they stay clean’, a fellow activist fighting for a better environment for people with disabilities told me during the national election campaign in 2014. These were the second parliamentary elections in Bulgaria within two years and they both happened after mass protests and resignations of the government. ‘We need to have elections more often if we want our politics to be clean’, she concluded.
On 26 March 2017 Bulgarians are about to vote for a new government again. The last resignation came after the presidential election in 2016. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov promised that if his party’s candidate Tsetska Tsacheva did not win the election in round one, he would resign. The resignation promptly followed after opposition candidate Rumen Radev, received the majority of the votes. Some called his act of resignation a populist move since – unlike the two government resignations before – it wasn’t triggered by a major political issue or forced by public opinion.
The Lesser Evil Syndrome
Every election campaign, we see the same old politicians from the same old parties making the same old promises. Bulgarian voters need and want a better alternative and yet when there is one, or several, they never seem to recognise it. I have actively participated as a candidate in several election campaigns for the past few years and I have personally talked to hundreds or maybe even thousands of people during these campaigns. After having so many conversations with voters, I realised that there are two dangerous beliefs that sabotage any effort to challenge and change the political status quo – the lesser evil syndrome and the belief that a vote for a smaller party is a lost vote.
There is a widespread myth among ‘common voters’ that it is better to vote for the ‘lesser evil’ so that ‘the bigger evil’ doesn’t win. Many believe that if they vote for a smaller party their vote will be wasted because this party won’t win. Even if they prefer or believe that there is an alternative, they might end up voting for one of the major parties that stands chances of beating the party they oppose most. It’s what we often call a ‘punitive vote’. Not voting or voting with an invalid ballot are other frequently used forms of this punitive vote. We have seen these strategies fail for over two decades but then we hear the same phrases during every campaign. ‘I’ll vote for the lesser evil, ‘they are all the same’, ‘nothing is going to change’, ‘I like your party, you are good people but you have no chance of winning and my vote will be wasted if I vote for you’. In the last parliamentary election in 2014, 51.34% of the Bulgarian citizens didn’t vote. Coalitions had to be made to form a government and still this was a government of the minority because the majority of people simply didn’t use their voting right.
I always like to say that there is no such thing as ‘the lesser evil’. There is a political status quo that we must break and we can’t do it with the same type of thinking that created it. Although the lesser evil syndrome is just a way of thinking, it is very dangerous for our democracy and we should not underestimate it. It is something that every new and smaller alternative party in the country should be aware of and find creative ways to change.
The post-voting chaos and the use of modern tools to expose violations
A little over a year ago, I posted a video on social media that made national news. It was during the local elections when I and two colleagues who had permissions to be present during the vote counting in the local sections decided to go to the main arena where all ballots were collected. Only representatives of the counting committee could be present but we somehow managed to get in with our documents that gave us ‘observer statuses. The arena was full of people who were shouting and panicking. It looked like a football match with violent fans who were booing the referee. But in this case, the football fans were regular people whose job was to hand over ballot bags and protocols from their sections. And they were booing a relatively small group of people wearing white coats, sitting at desks and typing on computers.
‘Why are they shouting at them?’ I asked my colleague.
We had no idea. It was 4.30 a.m. and the arena was full; there were people sleeping on the ballot bags. Then we noticed a sign with a number on it. A woman from the crowd explained, ‘We are here since 1a.m. Our number is 400+ and they are still working on 261. There are over 1800 numbers.’ Each person who had ballot bags to hand over had a number and had to wait for their turn. Four people passed out during the time we were inside but no one was allowed to leave the arena before handing over the protocol and the bags. Even in emergency cases. I saw people just abandoning their ballot bags trying to leave but if they didn’t have a document proving they had handed over everything, they weren’t allowed to, not under any circumstance, including probably death. What we saw made us feel gloomy. We wanted to leave. We explained to the security guards that we had no ballot bags or protocols but they didn’t believe us. ‘You need a document to leave. Without it, you can’t get out’.
People were locked and retained inside against their will which is not only immoral but also illegal. Members of the media were not allowed inside the arena. I heard a person shouting that someone should somehow bring a camera crew inside. But then I had a better idea. I pulled out my smart phone and started recording a video reportage to show what happens to our ballots after we vote. I then posted it on Facebook, took my colleague’s laptop and sat outside in the corridor, writing an e-mail and sending it to every major media in the country. A few hours later, when the sun was rising and when we somehow managed to get out, my phone started ringing. My video had succeeded in getting the news out and had started an essential debate about all the human and voting rights violations that happen during elections.
After the chaos around the ballot collection in the arena, all protocols with the results from every section in the country were uploaded on the official website of the Central Election Committee. Every citizen could freely access these scanned protocols. We were just a group of around 20 activists who decided to check every one of these documents that had the vote count from every section in Sofia. We found many protocols that were ‘fixed’ by hand. This change was made inside the arena, a single person could alter the final results from a whole voting section after the documents were verified and signed. Whether the numbers in some protocols were changed on purpose or not, I don’t know. But they were changed which proved how easy it was to forge the election results. We, a small group of people, found a large number of discrepancies when checking the protocols. It took us a few days to do a job the authorities should have been doing
We can’t expect to have fair elections and a liberal democracy if it is so easy to forge the protocols containing election results. We, as citizens, don’t have access to the algorithms that are used to calculate the final results. And we keep hearing stories about buying and selling votes, especially in the smaller towns and villages. But these stories are almost impossible to prove because no one dares to stand in front of a camera and state that he or she has been offered an X amount of money to vote for party X. Such cash in hand transactions are difficult to track. But this is when we, as active citizens need to step up our game and use all the modern tools that we have today to make sure that our next elections are fair: film with our smart phones, share stories on social media, have the courage to openly talk about the violations we have witnessed without fear that something might happen to us afterwards.
My video reportage was shared 577 times, viewed more than 36 000 and broadcasted on every major TV channel or news website. I think that we, as citizens underestimate our power. And we really have no reason to in a time when we have such powerful communication tools. We must also realise the importance of voting for a party we actually agree and sympathise with, rather than for the enemy of the party we hate. We must go out and vote and expose violations without being refrained by fear. This way, we can finally have the liberal democracy we have been waiting for for such a long time.
You can download the article in PDF here.