Freedom in the World
Freedom in the World Scores
Multiple parties compete in Bulgaria’s democratic electoral system, and there have been several transfers of power between rival parties in recent decades. The country continues to struggle with political corruption and organized crime, and the political discourse is marred by hate speech against minority groups and foreigners, especially from smaller right-wing parties. While the media sector remains pluralistic, ownership concentration is a growing problem, and news outlets often tailor coverage to suit the interests of their owners. Journalists sometimes encounter threats or violence in the course of their work. Ethnic minorities, particularly Roma, face discrimination. Despite funding shortages and other obstacles, civil society groups have been active and influential.
- Rumen Radev, a candidate endorsed by the center-left opposition, defeated a government-backed rival in the November presidential election. Incumbent Rosen Plevneliev had decided not to seek reelection.
- Following the election, the right-leaning prime minister resigned, meaning snap parliamentary elections would likely be held in early 2017.
- In September, amid growing nationalist hostility toward Muslim migrants, the parliament passed a nationwide ban on face-covering clothing in public places.
A coalition government led by Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his center-right party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), held power for most of 2016. However, it began to weaken in May, when the left-leaning Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV) party withdrew its support.
One of the reasons for ABV’s withdrawal was disagreement over electoral reforms ahead of the November presidential election. In April, the parliament had adopted a series of changes, including the introduction of mandatory voting and the limitation of voting sites abroad to embassies and consulates. Individuals who failed to vote in two successive elections of the same type would be removed from the registry, meaning they would have to reregister to vote again. The national ombudsman appealed the mandatory voting provision to the Constitutional Court, which was considering it at year’s end. Meanwhile, President Plevneliev, responding to objections from civil society and the ombudsman, vetoed the provision on voting abroad in May, and in July lawmakers adopted a new version allowing up to 35 polling sites per country. The rule was modified again in October, authorizing more than 35 sites in European Union (EU) member states.
The presidential election was held in two rounds in early November. After leading in the first round, former air force commander Rumen Radev—an independent supported by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP)—defeated GERB parliament speaker Tsetska Tsacheva, taking more than 59 percent of the vote. In light of his candidate’s upset defeat, Borisov resigned as prime minister, meaning snap parliamentary elections were likely to be called in early 2017.
Voters in the presidential election also cast ballots for a referendum on electoral reforms initiated by a popular television personality. Although turnout fell short of a threshold that would have made the referendum binding, participants overwhelmingly supported cutting state subsidies to political parties and switching from a party-list system to a two-round majoritarian system for parliamentary elections.
Separately during the year, the parliament continued to work on judicial reform, adopting two packages of legal amendments in March and July that were designed to help improve transparency and independence among judges and prosecutors.
In September, lawmakers approved a ban on face-covering clothing in public places, with escalating fines for repeat offenses. The measure was introduced by the nationalist Patriotic Front, part of the ruling coalition. In December, the parliament adopted counterterrorism legislation that allows the president to declare an emergency and empower authorities to curb civil liberties following a broadly defined terrorist act. The law also permits officials to limit the movement of terrorism suspects as a preventive measure.
The flow of migrants into Bulgaria appeared to ebb slightly in 2016, with some 19,400 asylum applications reported, compared with about 20,400 in 2015. A new EU border agency began assisting the country in patrolling its frontier with Turkey in October. Human rights groups noted continued reports of mistreatment of migrants and refugees by both security forces and highly publicized vigilante groups that conducted their own border patrols. Some vigilante figures faced criminal charges at year’s end. In November, police clashed with migrants who rioted after their reception center was sealed off in response to false media reports about infectious disease at the site.
This country report has been abridged for Freedom in the World 2017. For background information on political rights and civil liberties in Bulgaria, see Freedom in the World 2016.