Daniela Bozhinova, a Board Member of Democracy International, is a democracy researcher, activist, writer and politician. She is a co-founder of the Green Movement party in Bulgaria and has served until recently as an elected city councillor in Burgas, Bulgaria. Currently, she is a Member of Parliament, recently elected from the coalition “We Continue the Change – Democratic Bulgaria”. We took a chance to congratulate Daniela on this new career stage and ask several questions about direct democracy in Bulgaria!
First and foremost, congratulations on your new position as a Member of the Bulgarian Parliament! Could you share your goals in this role?
Thank you! First, about my goals as a MP elected with the ticket of the coalition “Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria”. After 4 rounds of snap parliamentary elections in 2 years, we, the Coalition, are willing to untangle the very complicated political situation of opponents and rival blocs in Bulgaria and try our best to finally make a government.
There are several pieces of legislation, neither right, nor left, but of paramount national importance, that need to be passed so as to allow for a green energy transition and the implementation of the so-called Recovery and Resilience Plan, as well as joining the Eurozone and the Schengen Zone. These seem to be consensual national goals and we should waste no more time and adopt the legislation that would provide for the needed reforms and investment. There is only one parliamentary (nationalistic) party that is not part of this political consensus and is currently attempting to call for a referendum to keep the national currency and not adopt the euro.
My goal as a long-time proponent of referendums and citizens’ empowerment is, of course, to amend the national act on direct decision-making. It has been kept very restrictive and disempowering by the legislators in all those years of the democratic transition of Bulgaria. The current law on referendums does not allow for the enjoyment of the constitutional right to direct decision-making. Actually, it has been blocking the provisions of the Bulgarian constitution that entitle Bulgarian citizens to make direct decisions on vital issues of governance and development of the country.
What would you say about the state of direct democracy in Bulgaria and would you call the laws on direct democracy accessible to citizens?
I have commented many times on the drawbacks of the Bulgarian referendum legislation, including at public events, hosted by Democracy International, where different regional and national legislations have been discussed and compared in order to learn from each other. The major impediments to a working initiative and referendum process in Bulgaria are the high quota for calling a national referendum - 400,000 signatures (total number of voters being 6 mil), which have to be collected in 90 days and the very high and floating turnout requirement. The latter is one of a kind globally – the turnout requirement is “at least the number of voters who have voted in the previous parliamentary election”. So far, we’ve had three national referendums since the downfall of communism in Bulgaria and none of the three has met the threshold. So, not a single issue has been decided directly by the citizens in the last 50 years. In fact, the last valid (though quite ceremonial and formal) referendum has been the socialist dictator Zhivkov’s plebiscite on the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, held in 1971. And this is absurd. It means that 3 generations of Bulgarians have not had the chance to make a direct and final decision on a single matter.
What are some of the difficulties that are faced when improving direct democracy legislation?
A constant difficulty is that the political parties are always fearful of letting the people decide, fearful of power devolution. Empowering the citizens means giving back power to the citizens to make decisions. Because of that it is hard to advance the referendum legislation in the parliament – this legislation is either ignored or wilfully pushed down the agenda. Now that the country is looking forward to the legislation that will enable us to join the Schengen and Eurozone and start investing under the Recovery and Resilience Plan, the referendum law does not stand much chance. But here comes my role, I believe, to the table, submit and push for the needed changes in the referendum law. I know it would be a hard task, but I must also live up to my own credo and the expectations of co-thinkers and direct democracy supporters and activists to deal with this problem.
Another thing that additionally reduces the chance for improving the referendum law in Bulgaria right now is the fact that the growing nationalistic party “Revival”, which came third in the last parliamentary elections, has managed to collect 600 000 signatures for a popular vote against the euro. Now the signatures are being verified and there is a very high likelihood that the quota of 400 000 will be met. So, we will most probably have a national referendum with the question “Would you like to keep the Bulgarian lev until 2043?” later this year. And since the rest of the parties disapprove of keeping the lev, they will hardly agree with doing away with the quorum threshold. I do not share this opinion and believe it is high time to make the referendum legislation democratic and working. The referendum on the euro should not be won with the help of procedural barriers but with real arguments in favour of replacing the lev with the euro.
I believe a major reason for the populist and nationalists to be increasing their popularity and electoral support is exactly the disempowerment of the people and the citizens’ frustration with representatives and political representation. Typically, populists employ plebiscitary rhetoric and initiatives just because political elites are negligent of the people and the representation of the people is very much flawed.
Do you think the bottom-up direct democracy instruments are widely known in Bulgaria, so if the legislation were more accessible, people would use it?
Absolutely! In spite of the desperate situation, people are giving it a try all the time. This winter we had a call for a referendum in the South-Western municipality of Blagoevgrad. The citizens there were unhappy with the local government’s plan to take a big loan for building a public leisure facility. Because of the inflation and economic crisis, no one felt like the leisure project was timely and the loan was needed at this moment. So, they started a petition for calling a local popular vote on the taking of the loan. A debt referendum is a legal possibility provided for (but never used because of procedural barriers) in the Law on Municipal Debt. The petitioners, however, could not make it. They came only a few hundred signatures short of the quota after a controversial process of signature verification.
In addition to being too restrictive, the Bulgarian referendum legislation has a lot of legal gaps. The latter allows for interpretation by the authorities, including the verification authorities against popular votes.
Can you share some success stories of a citizens’ initiative in Bulgaria?
We have had several success stories locally. One citizens’ initiative stopped a gold concession and the opening of a mine in the small municipality of Trun, West of Sofia. Instead, people have been developing rural tourism and bio-agriculture there. In other smaller towns and villages (smaller numbers of populations make it possible to overcome thresholds under the current law), referendum drives of the local people have stopped fracking and quarry projects, that were threatening the environment. I guess, just because of a number of successful referendums like these, people in Bulgaria have not lost hope that direct action can be a winner and keep trying.
Thank you, and lastly, what would you change in direct democracy in Bulgaria?
Oh, my ideas go very far! I may not live to see these changes, but I wish that we replace the very archaic form of the Grand National Assembly with a mandatory constitutional referendum. Historically, the constitutional referendum is the oldest type of referendum, but we do not have it in Bulgaria - the consent of the citizens with the constitution is not a requirement.
And with regard to the Act on Direct Participation of the People in State and Local Governance, as a first priority, we need to do away with the exceptionally high thresholds. Lowering the thresholds, however, is considered a radical change by the political parties. So, not to scare my colleagues-legislators away from reforming the referendum law, I have recently started to downplay it by presenting the needed amendments in a more technical way – bringing the referendum legislation in line with the standards and recommendation of the Council of Europe (Code of Good Practice on Referendums) and unblocking article 1 (2) of the Bulgarian constitution which provides for the right to direct decision-making.
I hope this strategy would work and we will see some democratic amendments that will enable meaningful citizens participation in my country at last.