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In Bulgaria, voter apathy threatens the rule of law

On Sunday April 4th, Bulgarian voters head to the polls in a landmark election for the poorest EU member state. For months on end, the country has been dominated by protests directed at Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s leadership, with an increasing concentration of power in the hands of wealthy oligarchs. The protestors have demanded Borissov’s resignation, along with the state prosecutor’s. 

The state prosecutor  came into the limelight in a scandal where a leaked video revealed corruption in  the state security system. The state prosecutor reacted to this by ordering  a raid on the President’s office, thereby consolidating the view that he is protecting corruption. 

These elections could potentially change the balance of power in Parliament so much that for the first time in 10 years, Bulgaria could end up with a new ruling party in government. No less than three coalitions of parties that are expected to end up in Parliament have explicitly ruled out joining the ruling party GERB in a government coalition: former musician Slavoj Trifonov’s There Are No Such People (TN), former prosecutor Maya Manalova’s Stand Up! Thugs Out! (ISMV) and Hristo Ivanov’s Citizens for the Development of Bulgaria (DB).

The protests have turned the election into a near-referendum on the rule of law. Protest supporters claim that in order for Bulgaria not to go down the Hungarian or Polish road, Borissov needs to be voted out as soon as possible. However, there is one glaring problem for opposition parties: voter turnout could be really, really low. Most pollsters expect turnout to be only about 40%. 

Of course, there’s some reason for it: because of the pandemic, voters are more likely to stay at home. But the pandemic cannot explain why in recent elections in Europe, turnout has not decreased as dramatically. For instance, the Dutch elections showed only a 3% decrease from 2017 to 78.7%, still a higher turnout than the 2012 and 2010 elections. And while overall turnout in the Netherlands was down in March, turnout among young people skyrocketed to 80%, up 13% from 2017. In Bulgaria, the last national elections, the voter turnout was under 54%, with participation in the European elections not even reaching 40%.

So Dutch youth went to the polls in the middle of a pandemic, are Bulgarian citizens likely to stay home? To motivate the Bulgarian population to vote civic society across Europe, but especially on the national level, ought to join up for a final push. The right to vote is the strongest democratic tool available to the individual and can make a big difference in turbulent, political times such as these. As Alliance4Europe has shown in the 2019 European Parliament elections, bad politicians get elected by good voters that do not vote – a vital lesson for those who want to defend democracy. It’s time to mobilise those who want to stand for the rule of law and democracy, and make sure they turn out. In Bulgaria, and elsewhere in Europe. Now, and in every election that’s coming our way.