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>Bulgarian pensioners get anti-crisis payment

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Perhaps with an eye to possible protests and possible votes, Bulgaria’s coalition government are bunging the country’s pensioners a one off payment of 50 leva – around 20 quid or US$35 reports the Sofia Weekly. Bulgaria is the poorest member of the EU and parliamentary elections are scheduled next June. No doubt the incumbent Socialists are hoping that their efforts will be more convincing that the bruised Czech Civic Democrats’ fruitless efforts to reassure pensioners that they were being looked after economically, although in comparison with Bulgaria they probably are.
350 000 Bulgaria Retirees Receive BGN 50 Compensation against Financial Crisis

“About 350 000 Bulgarian retirees are going to receive a one-time allowance of BGN 50 with their November pensions as part of the government’s measures to tackle the consequences of the global financial crisis.

The news was announced Thursday by Bulgaria’s Labor Minister Emiliya Maslarova, who explained that all retirees whose monthly pensions were below BGN 113,49 would benefit from the measure.

However, the allowance will be paid per household not per person, i.e. a household with two retirees with pensions below BGN 113,49 would be entitled to receive only one BGN 50 allowance.

The allocation of the BGN 50 allowance was necessitated by the inflation of basic products and services in the recent months. The inflation compensations will cost the national budget about BGN 17,5 M.”

>Sofia Weekly on Bulgarian reform debate

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The excellent online Sofia Weekly of 12 July carries the following pot pourri of news items about Bulgaria’s on-off debate about party and electoral reform.

“Bulgaria President Hosts Forum on Electoral Reform

The Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov opened Monday a forum to discuss the proposed reform of the country’s political model and election system, especially the introduction of majority representation that he himself had promoted over the recent months.

The public discussion is attended by a total of eighty persons, including the Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev, the Sofia Mayor and informal leader of the GERB party Boyko Borisov, all leaders of major political parties, as well as a number of leading Bulgarian sociologists, political scientists, and journalists.

At the opening of the forum the President expressed his doubts that the leading political parties would manage to achieve a consensus for the political reform.

Yet, Parvanov put forth his position that the introduction of majority representation elements, i.e. the adopting of a mixed representation system would turn into an antidote against the people’s indifference to politics and parties.

“None of us believes that the introduction of majority representation is the universal cure”, the President said.

He added, however, that the adding of majority elements to the proportional representation, the voters would have the opportunity to select from two “menus” – one of political parties, and another of personalities.

Parvanov rejected the allegation that the majority representation would make the buying of votes easier with the words: “It is easier to purchase a small, neat party.”

In his opening statement, the President declared himself against the introduction of a preferential proportional system, in which the voters would be able to rearrange the party tickets by pointing out that the experiment with this system had failed at the last elections for Members of the European Parliament in the spring of 2007.

He also said the preferential system would cause quarrels within the parties and coalitions, and push out of the ticket the smaller coalition partners.

The President called for the establishing of clear rules for the founding and registration of political parties. He pointed out the fact there were as many as 380 political parties in Bulgaria meant many of them were used to cover corporate interests.

Parvanov was positive that the political campaigns were the main corruption factors in Bulgaria because during them a lot more hidden party funds were spent. He suggested that a public register of the donors, advertising, PR, and lobbyist groups be set up.

According to the President and former leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Monday’s discussion was unprecedented because of the goodwill to debate and tackle important issues.

Bulgaria President: Obligatory Voting Might Give Birth to Political Monsters

Bulgaria’s President Georgi Parvanov said at the end of Monday’s discussion of the proposed electoral system reform that he himself initiated that he was firmly against the introduction of obligatory voting.

In his words, such a measure could lead to the creation of “political monsters” as the voters would try to find ways to protest against being force to vote.

“At this point we need to win people with policies, not through forcible and administrative action”, the President said warning the politicians would not be able to tackle the consequences of such a measure for decades to come.

Parvanov pointed out the point of the whole debate was to find a solution for the curing of the parties and political system in Bulgaria, because in the last parliamentary elections the winner received only about 450 000 votes.

He stressed the negativity of this trend, and made it clear that the parties should seek a way up from the bottom that they had reached.

After the five-hour long debates, however, the President discovered the support for the introduction of greater majority representation in the political system was waning. He admitted that even the Bulgarian Socialist Party, whose leader he was before becoming President, had stepped back from its former position on electoral reform.

Parvanov also concluded that the political parties and the other participants in Monday’s forum were unable to reach a consensus on the introduction of majority representation. In his words, the idea had many proponents but no one was willing to step in and assume the political responsibility for its realization.

Bulgaria Nationalist Leader: Electoral System Debate Is Fake

The leader of the extreme right and nationalist Ataka party Volen Siderov stated Monday that the discussion forum organized by the President Parvanov for reforms in the electoral system was insincere and fake.

According to the Ataka leader, the debate was a simulation because at the end the governing majority was going to adopt whatever changes it wanted without listening to the opposition.

“It is neither honest, nor moral to achieve a victory by default through changing the rules of the game”, he stated.

“We here are present at an advertising campaign of the President for a new political model”, Siderov said adding, “What other type of model do you want, Mr. President, autocracy or a military junta?”

The nationalist leader announced that there were two members of the Supreme Council of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and one advisor of the PM working in the board of Information Services Jsc, which helped with the counting of the votes.

“It is not important who votes but who counts the votes”, Siderov concluded.

He compared Monday’s forum to the round table of 1990, which in his words the former Communist Party, whose successor the BSP is, used to make a PR campaign.

The President Parvanov retorted to Siderov that it was really bad when there were people who fell asleep in 1990 and woke up today.

Sofia Mayor Borisov: Party Leaders Should Be Allowed to Be Mayors

The Sofia Mayor and informal leader of the GERB party Boyko Borisov demanded Monday that the reforms in the electoral system allow party leaders to hold positions such as his.

During the roundtable on the proposed electoral reforms organized by the President Parvanov, Borisov stated he could not see the point of banning party leaders from being mayors, while the Prime Minister could hold their position and still remain chair of their party.

The provisions prohibiting party leaders from holding mayor’s office has forced Borisov to hand over the leadership of his party GERB to Tzvetan Tzvetanov, and to assume the title of “informal leader”.

During his statement at the forum, the Sofia Mayor also demanded that the electoral lists be finally updated in order to prevent abuses with the votes of dead persons, and those living no longer at their permanent address.

Instead, Borisov insisted that all Bulgarian citizens vote at their current address. He also declared himself in favor of abolishing the state subsidy for political parties, and against the renting of municipal property for party headquarters.

The Sofia Mayor also suggested that the Interior Ministry should inspect the minority-populated regions in order to check whether the persons were actually there, or whether somebody else voted instead of them by using their IDs.

Borisov meant primarily the thousands of Bulgarian expatriates of Turkish origin living in Turkey, whose coming back to Bulgaria by bus in order to vote has turned into a problematic phenomenon.

The MP Lutvi Mestan from the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms party retorted it would be too bad for the elections reform discussion if it was centered only around the minority-populated regions.

Earlier, the Prime Minister Stanishev said the electoral system changes would most likely be voted in November. He replied to the demands for a referendum on obligatory voting made by the National Movement for Stability that the politicians should be careful with referendums because they could turn into a populist tool. ”

>Parties indifferent to Bulgarian President’s electoral reform plans

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As might perhaps have been anticipated, the Bulgarian President’s package of electoral and party regulation reforms, reports the Sofia Echo, has met an indifferent-to-frosty reputation from parties of the governing coalition – like most CEE presidents (and unlike President Basescu in neighbouring Romania) Bulgaria’s President Purvanov is not a big political player. The declining Movement for Stability and Progress, of ex-PM and -man-who-would-be-king-if-Bulgaria- was-monarchy, Simeon Saxe-Coburg, are according to the Echo against it because as a small party they would lose out from any more majoritarian system and, as they rightly, point out because it isn’t the most obvious solution to (supposed) problems of vote-buying. However, the Movement’s website reports that it is in favour of some form of mixed electoral system, although it seems to see the ‘majoritarian’ element partly in terms of allowing voters greater choice of individual candidate by freeing up the system of preferential voting allow electors to re-order the ranking on party lists. Other small parties like the far right Ataka bloc are against, presumably for similar reasons. The Turkish minority party, the Movement for Rights and Freedom’s, also has more to lose than to gain: there seem to be concentrated minorities of ethnic Turks in five of Bulgaria’s 28 districts (see map), suggesting about the same level of parliamentary representation for the MRF as now (assuming lack of ethnic polarization). However, any new electoral system, especially one with a less proportional outcome, might deprive the MRF would lose its pivotal kingmaking status, so the party would have to risjk much for limited gains.
The Bulgarian Socialists, who might, as a big, once very dominant party, have something to gain electorally, also now seem lukewarm. The Sofia Echo quotes Socialist PM Sergei Stanisheas saying that the “BSP had already bet on the majority element in the 2007 elections for European Parliament, but this did not lead to great results”, although I’m not clear if that means the euroelections were held using some kind of ‘mixed’ MMP system.The Bulgarian election commission’s website suggests that it was a straightforward party-listed based proportional contest, although unfortunately I can’t read enough Bulgarian to read the technical summary.

With heroic optimism (and a certain disregard for the facts) President Purvanov sums up the result of his abortive roundtable on report by as saying that “we all seem to be in favor of introducing a stronger majority element in the elections but no one wants to take the responsibility and make the decision in favour of it.” Not how I read it.

Meanwhile, in a separate development the Echo also reports that the country’s two Green parties have merged.

>Bulgarian President pushes for electoral and party reform referendum

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The Sofia Echo reports that, having come up with a package of proposed political reforms aimed at introducing some a new of Mixed Member Proportional electoral system and tougher registration requirements for parties, Bulgarian President Georgi Purvanov is pushing for a Romanian (New Zealand?) style referendum to enact the proposals, although, unfortunately for him, referenda are not binding on legislators. Post-1989, the Bulgarians have never had a national referendum, however, so who knows what may happen, if the other politicos do accede to his wish.
The President is, of course, also consulting with party leaders and reportedly won the support of the Socialist Party (BSP), his former political home, but right-wing parties seem rather more leery. The proposals, which specify that to be legally registered parties must have branches in 2/3 of municipalities, seem directed at culling small, local grouping that have done increasingly well at local level in the last couple of years, prompting allegations of vote buying and other dubious practices. These seem to have been borne out by a series of court decisions annulling municipal elections. Critics suggest, however, that established parties, including big powerful groups like the BSP, have simply been caught napping, letting their grassroots organization wither, as attention shifted to elite-level politics in Sofia and the formulation of party lists central to the current system of PR. Rising political force, GERB, a sort of centre-right populist concoction riding very high in the national polls is, more understandably, also rather short of local organization.

The electoral reform element of sketchy overview of the presidential proposals are expertly dissected by Matthew Shugart at Fruits and Votes. Seems, however, that they are more about corralling powerful local politicians into established (big) parties than eliminating corrupt practices.

And as postscript I should note that a presidentially sponsored Round Table to seek consensus on changing the electoral system and party regulation regime is due to held on 7 July. Watch this space

>Bulgarian President wants strong, clean parties and mixed elctoral system

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The Sofia Weekly carries the following report about the Bulgarian President’s plans for making the country’s democracy more effective and legitimate

“Bulgaria President Proposes New Political Model

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov presented Tuesday his proposal for the reform of the political model in Bulgaria, focusing on the three main points that could lead to real political results.

The three points included in the President’s proposal are: the necessity of legal and public guarantees for a national representation of the political parties, transparency regarding Party financing and regaining of voters’ trust through a reform of the election system.

Below is the proposals’ full text:

I. Legal and public guarantees for a national representation of the political parties:

  • In order to participate in elections, a Party must have registered structures in 2/3 of the municipalities.
  • If a Party could not reach 1% (2% for coalitions) from the vote in two consecutive elections, the Party would be stricken from the Party Register and would not participate in the next elections. If the Party wishes to continue its political existence, it would enter a new registration regime according to the Political Parties Law
  • Only parties who have received 1% (2% for coalitions) from the vote during the previous parliamentary elections would be able to participate in local elections. They would be the only ones to designate candidates for mayors and create election lists. Independent mayoral candidates and independent Councilmen would be acceptable, but not lists that are not clearly related to a political Party.

II. Transparent Party financing:

  • Discontinue financing of political parties by legal entities; increase State subsidy for parties receiving over 1% at the last parliamentary vote.
  • Public register of individual donors with a preset limit for the donation amount; public register for the Advertising and PR agencies serving particular parties.
  • For election participation, in addition to the requirement that the Party registers with the Central Election Commission, it must also register a public payment account where all donations would be deposited and all money to pay for election campaigning would come from.
  • Delegating rights, human resources and experts to the National Audit Office for control over Party finances, election campaigns and activity of the advertising and PR agencies.
  • Each election campaign would be subject of finance check-up by the National Audit Office. If the campaign has not been paid for from the payment account officially registered by the Party, the Party would be sanctioned.
  • The National Audit Office would have the right to check the Party accounting books.
  • Sanctions that could be imposed by the National Audit Office in case of finance violations include elections’ results cancellation, disallowing the Party participation in the next elections and others.
  • Discontinuation of the renting of Party club facilities to third parties either by directly forbidding the renting or by turning the rent into a public or State rent determined by the average market price for the region.

III. Regaining the voters’ trust through a reform of the election system:

  • Introduction of a proportional election system with a majority element:
  • Maintaining the proportional character of the election system in order to guarantee the leading political will and responsibility of the political Party.
  • Majority candidates would run in big single mandate election regions to contribute to their public recognition and allowing effective control over vote purchasing.
  • Clean the electiton lists from the so-called “ghosts”; introduction of active voters’ registration; unification of the rules for different”

>Bulgaria: blogged down

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Transitions Online reports on the heavy handed attitude of the Bulgarian authorities to a blogger, who promoted an ecological ‘flash’ protest on his blog. The more interesting element is less the Bulgarian state’s dislike of civic protest or being held to account that the nascent movement of bloggers claiming to be the country’s ‘real’ civil society. The political role of blogging and the internet has been endlessly hyped. I personally am sceptical that it does much more than allow well educated elite groups to talk to each other and co-ordinate a little more quickly and easily. This probably matters for the emergence of liberal minded anti-establishment challengers – the emergence of Estonia’s Res Publica party seemed to have taken place largely over email – but the real issue seems to be that, blogging or not, such forces lack the social and political weight to have much impact.

Perhaps more interesting to track, however, would be whether CEE officialdom has generated any anonymous insider blogs such as the UK’s Civil Serf (now taken down), which can shed some light in the ‘black box’ of day-to-day public administration in the region.

>Kosovo independence prompts pan-Slav stirrings in Bulgarian intelligentsia?

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I had assumed that Bulgaria’s intelligentsia had, by and large, had a liberal pro-Western orientation and that pan-Slavism – or perhaps I should call it pan-Othodoxy – was a sort of residual cultural baggage without the intellectual and political clout it still seems to have in Russia or Serbia. However, the framing of the open letter, signed by 30 (or in later reports 100) Bulgarian intellectuals, cultural figures and churchmen against their government’s decision (in the end) to recognise Kosovan independence, reported in the Sofia Echo, suggests otherwise. A longer report in Novinite.com does, however specify that the letter was signed by intellectuals of the left.

I lack background to analyse this properly, but I wonder whether such sentiments will feed into the electorally emergent Bulgarian radical right, which – as far as I am aware – has so far been a ragbag of populist and racist positions without much intellectual ballast. A Bulgarian student tells me that it should be regarded as a new post accession phenomenon, not one with roots in historic nationalism (like say the Slovak National Party). Interestingly, other new phenomena – Kosovan independence and the rise of Putin-era pipline politics – seem to have opened up further intellectual and political space for it.

>Electoral reform catching in SE Europe?

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Plans to reform the electoral system along majoritarian (first-past-the-post) lines seem to be catching in South Eastern Europe – at least if you are incumbent President or an ex-communist Social Democrat whose reformist commitment was fairly recently acquired. Bulgaria’s head of state, President Georgi Purvanov is, it seems, basically both. So it comes as no surprise that – following the (as unyet unresolved) Romanian electoral reform imbroglio – he should be toying with electoral reform broadly in the direction of a move from PR to majoritarian electoral system. As in Romania centre-right parties (specifically the UDF, but also the newly ascendant GERB party and parliamentary defectors from the governing National Movement for Stability and Prosperity, whose have set up a New Democracy grouping) are also attracted by the idea, seemingly seeing its radicalism as an opportunity for some kind of broader clean break giving impetus for reform and an spur to centre-right party building, which is as problematic in Bulgaria as Romania, although I guess Serbs of liberal-right persuasion must look on in envy.

As my SSEES colleague Eric Gordy notes in a piece written after the first round of Serbia’s presidential elections “… the DSS [Serbian Democratic Party of just-about-re-elected incumbent Tadic] has not adopted a conservative profile but a contrarian one, and as a result there is no coherent conservative political force in the country but rather a motley collection of populist and ultra-right movements. The DS [Democratic Party] and the DSS are not liberal and conservative parties in the sense that these terms are understood in modern politics; rather, both are in the mould of the highly adaptable and utterly immovable ‘parties of power’ that characterized politics in the period between the two world wars throughout the region”. On the other hand, the situation I suspect is not that far removed enough for the Bulgarian or Romanian (would-be) centre-right to feel great satisfaction. If they do want a further does of interwar style clientelist transformismo with a dash of Putin thrown in, first-past-the-post would probably be just the ticket, however.

>Education portfolio too hot to handle for Czech Greens

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Who’d be an Education Minister in East Central Europe these days? Once a something of a political backwater, you now face an unenviable set of competing demands: of implementling EU-endorsed plans for transformation of communist-era education systems to shape up for the knowledge economy, putting a culture of critical, independent learning and foreign language learning in place of entrenched ex-cathedra methods, rote-learning and a bias towards technical specialisms; an ageing, over-feminized and under-qualified teaching workforce at primary and secondary level, chronically underpaid but with relatively good levels of union organization; unreformed teaching training institutions; and a need to expand and reform higher education, similar lines taking advantage of sizeable EU structural funds while your country is still sufficiently far behind the EU average to qualify for them.

The most spectacular recent casualty of this conundrum was (now ex-)Czech Education Minister Dana Kuchtová, one of three Green cabinet members, in the current centre-right led minority administration. Projects for the reform of higher education, which should have qualified for tens of billions of crowns of EU funds, were not ready and not up to scratch, leaving rectors of universities furious. Although such situations are not untypical problem across the new CEE member states, given inexperience and not sufficiently professionalized or qualified civil service concerned Ms Kuchtová seems to have had the misfortune to have inherited problems at the Czech Education Ministry just as they came to a head and to have mismanaged the crisis both administratively and politically, making promises she couldn’t keep and antagonising MPs in the Education Committee of the Czech Chamber of Deputies.

Lower down the education system in the Czech Republic, a new reformed curriculum stressing theme and competences (‘learning how to learn’), rather than the accumulation of knowledge in traditional subject areas is being rolled out. There are sceptical reports in the press as to whether current teaching staff have the ability and inclination to teach it as intended with suggestions that it is essentially a Potemkin repackaging of the old syllabus. Conservative resistance is also coming directly by the traditional Czech intelligentsia and scientific establishment, who see traditional teaching methods based on a canon of knowledge as central to Czech national identity (and one might add, the rather elitist culture of the Czech intelligentsia itself). In a telling phrase a letter signed by a host of leading academics including the sociologist, ex-dissident and feminist scholar, Jiřina Šiklová, warns in a characteristic phrase that the new reforms threaten to lead to the ‘degradation of the Czech population into an unthinking mass (dav) of consumers’ (Cynics might say that was possibly largely the situation already, which was why reform is needed – why do Czech intellectuals harp on with fantasies of imminent national decay rooted in lack of culture/morality/education so persistently?)

Meanwhile, Czech unions representing secondary school teachers are preparing once again to stage strikes over low pay, joining their colleagues in Bulgaria, who are already locked in acrimonious series of strikes. Here, government ministers see salary increases as potentially budget busting and linked to reductions in the size of the teaching force justified by Bulgaria’s rapidly ageing population and consequently declining school population, performance-related pay and financial decentralization and ring-fencing of education budgets. Figures reported in the Slovak press recently also highlight that the country’s teachers are amongst the worst paid professionals in the country.

The political demise of Dana Kuchtová, under pressure from both the Civic Democrats and junior partner in the coalition, the Christian Democrats, has also triggered a minor crisis in the Green party, offering a focus for party members discontented with leader Martin Bursík for excessive accommodation of right-wing parties and in effect hanging, Kuchtová, a former activist with the South Bohemian Mothers anti-nuclear group, out to dry. The EU funds fiasco, they argue was no worse at the Education Ministry than at many other Czech ministries struggling to download European funds on time, but served as a pretext for the two right-wing parties in the coalition to target and pressurize the small and inexperienced Greens. Kuchtová’s resignation was partly prompted by a desire to head off factional conflict in the party.

Discontent is also mounting among some Greens about the role of the Green-nominated Foreign Minister, aristocratic and ex-Havel confidante Karel Schwarzenberg. Although his appointment was seem as a major political coup for the Greens at the time the government was formed, some Greens have, it seems, now worked out that Schwarzenberg is in no way carrying out a Green foreign policy but rather one informed by his own aristocratic sense of public service and Schwarzenberg family tradition. Clearly, the nation’s schoolchildren are not the only ones in the Czech Republic who need to learn faster.

Karolína Vitarová-Vránková, ‘Ekonomika a štěstí pro ZS’, Respekt, 1-7 October, pp. 60-1

>Any tax you can do, I can do flatter…

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The Sofia Weekly carries the following story about the GERB party of Sofia’s mayor Boyko Borissov, suggesting that free market fiscal populism centring on flat taxation as magic bullet for all economic woes is alive and well in SE Europe. The package seems an attempt to outbid the current Socialist/centrist-liberal coalition’s recently passed 10% flat tax package. Despite Sofia’s chronic rubbish disposal problems, Boyko Borissov seems set to romp home in the poll to run the nation’s capital ahead of a Socialist, far-right and centre-right unity candidates- the latter just agreed by the largest two squabbling remnants of the old Union of Democratic Forces. It will be interesting to see whether GERB can repeat the trick in national elections with flat tax as their main selling point. So far the tactic has garnered large but ultimately insufficient support for centre-right parties trying this tack in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Bulgaria’s GERB Party Wants 7% Flat Tax

Bulgaria’s self-proclaimed centre-right party GERB presented on Wednesday its ambitious economic agenda for the 2009 parliamentary polls, which includes a 7% flat tax rate and massive privatisation of state assets.The party of Sofia mayor Boyko Borissov, who styles himself as the biggest opponent of the country’s ruling three-way coalition, was founded last year and previously had no cohesive economic programme. In addition to arguing for a lower flat tax than the 10% that the current cabinet plans to adopt starting next year, the party’s plan includes a monthly tax-exempt minimum of BGN 1000. The average monthly wage in Bulgaria in the second quarter of the year was BGN 406.Should GERB win the elections and complete its four-year term, its policies can bring a doubling of monthly wages, which could reach as high as BGN 1500-2000, party economist Stoyan Mavrodiev told reporters.Another key feature of its economic agenda is privatising all state assets in which the state has a majority stake, which includes a bank, the postal company, coal mines, several power stations and tobacco monopoly Bulgartabak, among others. Furthermore, key parts of infrastructure, such as motorways, airports, ports and bridges over the Danube should be given out on concession, while the state should step out of health insurance and healthcare, which should become private, according to the programme.That would allow the cabinet to reduce the annual budget to the equivalent of 30% of gross domestic product (GDP), as opposed to the current 40%.”