Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
Multiple parties compete in Bulgaria’s democratic 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. While the media sector remains pluralistic, ownership concentration is a growing problem. 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.
Key Developments in 2017:
- In the March parliamentary elections, the far-right United Patriots alliance won 27 seats and formed a coalition with the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party—marking the first time a far-right party has been part of the Bulgarian government and raising concerns about the normalization of xenophobia and discrimination.
- In June, the government completed a new fence along the border with Turkey to keep out migrants. Harsh treatment of migrants and asylum seekers remained a problem throughout 2017.
- In December, parliament approved new anticorruption legislation, but President Rumen Radev vowed to veto the bill.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 33 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 11 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The president, who is directly elected for up to two five-year terms, is the head of state but has limited powers. Presidential elections were held in November 2016, resulting in the victory of Rumen Radev, an independent candidate. The election was generally well administered and stakeholders accepted the results. The legislature chooses the prime minister, who serves as head of government. The current prime minister, Boyko Borisov, leader of GERB, the center-right party, was appointed after his party’s victory in the 2017 parliamentary election held in March.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The unicameral National Assembly, composed of 240 members, is elected every four years in 31 multimember constituencies. The last parliamentary election in March 2017 was deemed credible by international observers. GERB led with 95 seats, followed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) with 80, and the United Patriots alliance with 27. Following the elections, the third Borisov government took office in May in a coalition between GERB and the United Patriots. The success of the United Patriots marks the first time in Bulgarian history that far-right nationalist parties have been part of the government. Members of the United Patriots delivered inflammatory speeches attacking the Roma population and migrants during the campaign period, raising concerns about the normalization of xenophobia and discrimination.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4
The Central Election Commission administers Bulgarian elections and generally works professionally and impartially. Parliament passed controversial reforms to the electoral laws in 2016, including the introduction of compulsory voting and new restrictions on voting abroad. The new rules on voting abroad limited the number of polling places and led to protests throughout the diaspora. In February 2017, the constitutional court abolished compulsory voting.
Further attempts to change the electoral system, such as a referendum proposed by GERB to introduce a first-past-the-post system, were supported by a majority of voters but failed to reach the threshold required to become law.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 14 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
The Bulgarian party system is competitive and characterized by a relative degree of instability, with several new parties and alliances emerging in each election. Notably, the far-right United Patriots alliance won 27 seats in parliament in their first election in 2017.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
The opposition has the opportunity to increase its support and gain power through elections. In the 2017 parliamentary elections, the BSP, the main opposition party, gained 41 seats.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4
Bulgarians are generally free to make independent political choices. However, oligarchs dominate the major political parties and influence their platforms, a problem that is exacerbated by a lack of transparency in campaign finance law.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
The law dictates that electoral campaigns must be conducted in the Bulgarian language, which hinders outreach to non-Bulgarian speaking minority groups. The ethnic Turkish minority is represented by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), but the Romani minority is more marginalized. Small Romani parties are active, and many Roma reportedly vote for the DPS.
Political parties sometimes take positions that undermine women’s rights. In late 2017, the United Patriots Alliance came out strongly against Bulgaria’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 8 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
National legislative representatives and the government effectively determine the policies of the country. However, oligarchs dominate the government and greatly influence policymaking. The Bulgarian subsidiary of Lukoil, for example, a Russian company that supplies 100 percent of Bulgaria’s oil, has gained monopoly power due to favorable legislation passed by several governments.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4
Bulgaria, which joined the European Union (EU) in 2007, has struggled to meet the bloc’s anticorruption requirements amid resistance from much of the political class. The 2017 CVM (cooperation and verification mechanism) report issued by the European Commission highlighted the need for a new legal framework on the fight against corruption. Anticorruption laws are not adequately enforced, including in high-profile cases, contributing to a culture of impunity.
In December 2017, parliament approved new legislation that would create a centralized anticorruption agency, but President Rumen Radev vowed to veto the bill amidst concerns from analysts that the new anticorruption framework was prone to being politicized—parliament would appoint the agency’s leadership and it would no longer grant anonymity to whistleblowers.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4
Although Bulgaria has laws meant to ensure that the government operates with transparency, they are inadequately enforced. Public access to information about the budgets and spending of various government agencies was often lacking in 2017.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 47 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 14 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4
The constitution protects freedom of expression, including for the press, but journalists faced threats and occasional violence in 2017. In October, television journalist Viktor Nikolaev was threatened by Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov and member of parliament (MP) Anton Todorov, who said Nikolaev would be fired if he continued investigating an aircraft purchase by the government.
The media sector is pluralistic, but dependent on financial contributions from the state, often in the form of advertising, which can lead to demands for favorable coverage of the government. Domestic ownership of media has become more concentrated in the hands of wealthy Bulgarian businessmen, leaving the sector vulnerable to political and economic pressures, as well as limiting the diversity of perspectives available to the public. News outlets often tailor coverage to suit the interests of their owners.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4
Religious freedom is generally respected, but Muslims and members of other minority faiths have reported instances of harassment and discrimination, and some local authorities have prohibited proselytizing or the construction of religious buildings. In 2016, parliament passed a law banning the wearing of full face veils in public locations.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
Academic freedom is generally upheld in practice.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution and there are no significant impediments to free and open private discussion.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 11 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
The authorities generally respect constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly. In 2016, a counterterrorism bill was passed by parliament that critics described as overly broad; under it, the president has the power to declare a state of emergency in the event of a terrorist attack, which would allow the government to ban rallies and demonstrations.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely and have a degree of influence, though they suffer from funding shortages, often rely on foreign donors, and sometimes face hostility from politicians and interest groups.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
Workers have the right to join trade unions, but some public employees cannot legally strike, and none are permitted to bargain collectively. Private employers often discriminate against union members, including terminating them, without facing serious repercussions.
F. RULE OF LAW: 10 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 3 / 4
Bulgaria’s judiciary has benefited from legal and institutional reforms associated with EU accession, but is still prone to politicization. Constitutional amendments passed in 2015 strengthened the Inspectorate, which investigates conflicts of interest and the assets of magistrates, and is involved in disciplinary proceedings.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4
Constitutional rights to due process are not always upheld. Incidents of misconduct by police were reported in 2017, including arbitrary arrests and failing to inform suspects of their rights. Public trust in the court system is low because most Bulgarians believe that magistrates are vulnerable to political pressure and therefore do not always provide a fair trial for defendants.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
Police brutality, including occasional torture of suspects in custody, continued in 2017. Overcrowding and violence plague many of Bulgaria’s prisons. Organized crime is still a major issue, and scores of suspected contract killings since the 1990s remain unsolved.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4
Ethnic minorities, particularly Roma, face discrimination in employment, health care, education, and housing, though the government and NGOs operate a number of programs meant to improve their social integration. Authorities periodically demolish illegally constructed or irregular housing—mostly in areas occupied by Roma—without providing alternative shelter.
The Ataka (Attack) party and other members of the United Patriots alliance regularly use hate speech in their campaigns, targeting ethnic Turks, Roma, Jews, Muslims, and Syrian refugees, among other groups. In 2017, human rights groups noted continued reports of mistreatment of migrants and refugees by both security forces and vigilante groups that conducted their own border patrols. In June 2017, the government completed the installation of a fence along Bulgaria’s southern border with Turkey to block the irregular entry of migrants and refugees, which in effect denies people the right to access Bulgaria’s asylum procedures.
Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal, but societal bias against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people reportedly persists. The 2017 Sofia gay pride parade was held in June despite threats and counterprotests.
A gender equality law passed in 2016 was designed to foster equal opportunity for women, but they still face discrimination in employment, with higher levels of unemployment and lower pay than their male counterparts.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 12 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
For the most part, Bulgarians face no restrictions on their freedom of movement. Corruption and bias can sometimes restrict access to jobs. In September 2017, parliament passed a law that restricted the ability of asylum seekers to move outside of prescribed areas.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4
Property rights, although legally guaranteed, are not always respected in practice. The tax regime and low cost of doing business, however, encourages investment in Bulgaria.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4
Domestic violence remains a problem. The National Study on Domestic and Gender Based Violence in Bulgaria, published in 2016, found that one-third of Bulgarians had experienced domestic or gender-based violence at least once. Victims have complained that state authorities were often ineffective in providing protection when violence was reported.
Same-sex marriage is illegal in Bulgaria, and same-sex couples are barred from adopting children.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4
Human trafficking continued to be an issue in 2017, with the Roma population particularly vulnerable. Although the government stepped up efforts to combat trafficking, shelter victims, and punish perpetrators, these measures have not matched the scale of the problem, and punishments remain light in practice.