Complex questions in a “yes-or-no package” have become the latest flavor in the Netherlands, Hungary, Britain, and now Bulgaria.
TV Democracy Balkan style
A popular TV show in Bulgaria – the “Slavi’s Show” – collected 670 000 signatures calling for a national referendum related to electoral and political reforms; the legal threshold is 400,000. The petition was discussed in the Bulgarian Parliament on Monday, February 8, 2016.
The host of the show, Trifonov, hosts a nightly talk show that blends humor, music and populist nationalism. The show thrives on an anti-political discourse in a country where watchdog Transparency International ranks the most corrupt in Europe.
The ranking is perception based, and focuses on how Bulgarians perceive Bulgaria. And that is not a very good perception. Bulgaria is ranked 69th out of 168 countries probed.
In political science, the discussion between majoritarian and multi-party democracies takes place as a trade between inclusiveness and effectiveness in governance. The basic argument being that a multi-party democracy limits anti-systemic tendencies by assimilating them into the political system, while a majoritarian system favors reforms. On TV the same discussion takes place between advertising, vulgar humor, and the dismissal of policy as “a show.”
To check how Bulgarians see the challenge at hand, New Europe asked the opinion of a young political scientist, Martin Sokolov. Mr. Sokolov is a researcher of the Sofia Security Forum, a think-tank.
New Europe: Along with the presidential elections in Bulgaria, an unusual referendum was held. What was unusual about it?
On Sunday, November 6, voters took to the polls to vote for the future president of Bulgaria. But, they also voted on issues relating to the electoral system.
They were invited to vote whether they prefer a majoritarian electoral system, as opposed to the current system of proportional representation; they were also asked whether they want voting to become compulsory and the reduction of subsidies to parties by 90%. Expectedly, the vast majority of voters are in favour of these propositions; unexpectedly, the turnout was sufficient – over 50% of registered voters – forcing the Parliament to take this non-legally binding referendum seriously.
All that is relatively unusual, as political participation is waning. But, what is highly unusual is that the initiative for holding a referendum does not come from a prominent political figure or party, but the host of a TV reality show.
New Europe: That is directly comparable to GeenStijl, that is, the Dutch satirical news website that triggered the Dutch referendum on Ukraine’s Association Agreement.
Yes. The initiative does not belong to a party or political figure, but to a famous television host with populist tendencies. He started his campaign for the referendum almost a year ago. Initially, he wanted to pose six questions, but one had already been covered by a previous referendum and two were seen as unconstitutional and they were dropped.’
Thus, people did not get to vote (again) on electronic voting, as they had already deliberated on the matter. And they were not asked whether they want the number of MPs to be reduced from 240 to 120, as that would be unconstitutional. Finally, they were not asked whether regional governors appointed by the Ministry of Interior should be elected.
New Europe: But, passing the 50% threshold was a surprise?
Yes, in some respects. But, there were a number of factors at play.
First of all, the vote in Presidential elections is mandatory, and those who showed up for one ballot voted for the referendum as well. Secondly, Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU and suffers from widespread corruption. The political class is seen as broadly corrupt. That is why people are keen to endorse dramatic changes and see the referendum as an opportunity.
New Europe: Does this mean that they were well-informed about the questions on the referendum and the consequences of these measures, should they be enforced?
To the contrary, because the referendum coincided with the Presidential elections, there was no information campaign at all.
People that took to the polls were not really informed. According to a survey carried out before the referendum, 47% of people believed that majoritarian elections would be detrimental to representativeness, 74% were against compulsory voting, and 73% thought that decreasing the subsidies for political parties will make them dependent on sponsors. Voting in favour of the propositions appears to be the result of affective attitudes rather than informed opinion.
New Europe: So what do you project will happen as a result of the referendum?
If Bulgaria adopts a majoritarian system, big parties will benefit. It is quite possible that only 2 or 3 parties will dominate the political landscape. That concern is expressed by many analysts and was raised during the campaign leading to Sunday’s vote, but to no avail.
It is widely admitted by both political analysts and public opinion surveys that reducing state party subsidies by 90%, will force political parties to turn to businesses for sponsorship. That will not contribute to transparency.
When it comes to making voting compulsory, many experts see the measure as unconstitutional; the right to vote is exactly that, “a right.”
The truth of the matter is that this referendum was an exercise of direct democracy. People had the opportunity to state their opinions on questions which they believe can change Bulgaria for the better. However, there is a fine line between direct democracy and populism. We saw this with the Brexit vote. People were misinformed and now have to face the consequences. But, the emotional and populist attempt to overthrow the status quo may achieve the opposite. The status quo may, ultimately consolidate its hold on power.
Ironically, that is a result that achieves the opposite result of its stated objective.