Rare – and to be handled with care. That is the briefest way to describe how the European East sees referendums and direct democracy in general. Maybe that’s why the Bulgarian parliament was so wary. In the last week of July, parliamentary deputies dumped two out of three referendum questions, though supported by 570,000 signatures gathered through a petition drive and put forward by President Rosen Plevneliev. Three questions were supposed to be on the ballot for the fall local elections. They concerned the electoral code: whether a majority voting system should be merged with the existing proportional one; whether casting a ballot should be made obligatory; and whether electronic voting should be allowed. In the end, only the last survived.
Of course, the parliamentarians had their reasons. The first question did not specify how many deputies would actually be elected by majority vote. A pure majority system works in the United Kingdom, for example, and a partial one in Germany; the wording did not clarify which one Bulgaria should emulate. And as for a legal obligation to vote, the doubts grew. In Europe only a few countries have it, and some, like Greece and Belgium, cannot enforce it fully.
Even electronic voting, the survivor among the proposals, was not beyond criticism. Bearing in mind the high software culture of Bulgarians (excellent hackers and former computer producers) and the tendency for vote buying, some politicians claimed that an electronic election could be easily rigged. And although it passed through parliament’s eye of a needle, the electronic vote could still stumble. The politicians imposed a very high threshold for it to succeed. If a major party decides to boycott the polls (a high probability), the last referendum option would fail in October because of low turnout.