Bulgarian referendum committee targets late October for plebiscite

Bulgarian referendum committee targets late October for plebiscite

(An activist collecting signatures for the petition in favour of the electoral rules referendum. Photo: gerb.bg)

By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of the Sofia Globe

Bulgaria’s initiative committee in support of an electoral rules referendum is targeting late October as the most likely date for the plebiscite and has asked Parliament Speaker Mihail Mikov to start the clock on the one month period to amend its petition.

Last week, Bulgaria’s Civil Registry said that it found 108 286 invalid entries among the 561 528 signatures submitted by the committee in March, which puts the petition 36 674 short of the 500 000 signatures threshold needed to trigger the referendum.

On May 19, the committee’s chairperson, Georgi Bliznashki, told reporters that the committee was prepared to fix the errors found by the Civil Registry check and resubmit the petition.

However, for the process to begin – by law, the committee has one month to do so – the committee requires the official results of the check, which it is yet to receive, and also for the Speaker of the National Assembly to formally start the process.

Bliznashki said that the committee planned to send a letter to Mikov and ask him to “carry out his duties”. Even though Parliament is in recess because the MPs are out campaigning ahead of the European Parliament elections on May 25, that does not affect the work of the National Assembly’s administration, Bliznashki said.

Procedurally, if the re-submitted petition is found to have more than 500 000 valid signatories, the National Assembly will have up to three months (counting from the date that the petition was re-filed) to decide on the wording of the referendum question.

After Parliament agrees the referendum question, the President sets the date for the plebiscite – no sooner than two months and no later than three months after Parliament’s decision. According to Bliznashki, this made the second half of October a realistic timeframe to hold the referendum.

The referendum was floated in January by President Rossen Plevneliev, who suggested three questions concerning the possible elections of some of the lawmakers by majoritarian vote, the introduction of electronic voting and whether Bulgaria should make voting in elections and national referendum compulsory.

Plevneliev’s idea was met with no small degree of contempt by country’s socialist-led ruling axis, which formally rejected the motion on his request. However, Parliament cannot block a plebiscite that is demanded by a petition of more than 500 000 people, although it can change the question of the referendum.

Several days after Plevneliev made his request and the ruling coalition made it clear that the request would be rejected, Bliznashki set up the initiative committee to collect the signatures. A former socialist MP, he has emerged as one of the leading critics of socialist leader Sergei Stanishev inside the party over the past year. Bliznashki is also a law professor at Sofia University and was one of the first faculty members to support the student anti-government protests in the autumn of 2013.

Under Bulgarian law, for a referendum to be considered valid, turnout must be higher than at the previous parliamentary elections – namely 51.33 per cent at the May 2013 elections. In this scenario, the referendum’s result is binding on Parliament, which must amend the laws to reflect the plebiscite’s outcome. If turnout is below that benchmark but higher than 20 per cent, Parliament must discuss the issue, but is not bound by the referendum results.