Bulgaria | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Bulgaria

Bulgaria

Free
80/100
Overview: 

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 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: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • In January, the parliament overrode a presidential veto and adopted legislation that would establish a new commission tasked with combating official corruption.
  • In July, the Constitutional Court found that the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on gender-based violence was unconstitutional. The government had introduced the convention for ratification by the parliament, but it drew significant opposition.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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. In 2016, former air force commander Rumen Radev—an independent supported by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP)—defeated parliament speaker Tsetska Tsacheva of the ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party, taking more than 59 percent of the vote. The election was generally well administered, and stakeholders accepted the results.

The legislature chooses the prime minister, who serves as head of government. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov of the center-right GERB was returned to office after his party’s victory in the 2017 parliamentary elections.

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 2017 elections were deemed free and fair by international observers. GERB led with 95 seats, followed by the BSP with 80, the nationalist United Patriots alliance with 27, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) with 26, and the right-wing populist Volya with 12. Following the elections, a coalition government consisting of GERB and the United Patriots took office.

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, though some flaws have been reported in past elections. The parliament passed controversial reforms to the electoral laws in 2016, including the introduction of compulsory voting and new rules on voting abroad that limited the number of polling places and led to protests throughout the diaspora. In 2017, the Constitutional Court struck down the law on compulsory voting.

Further proposed changes to the electoral system in a 2016 referendum, such as the introduction of a majoritarian system for parliamentary elections, were supported by a majority of voters but failed to reach the turnout threshold for the votes to be binding.

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 dynamic, featuring long-term players like the BSP and DPS as well as cycles in which new parties emerge while others decline or disappear. GERB first won seats in the parliament only in 2009, and the 2017 elections featured the emergence of the United Patriots alliance with 27 seats.

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4

There have been multiple peaceful transfers of power between rival parties through elections since the end of communist rule in 1990. In the 2017 parliamentary elections, the BSP, currently the main opposition party, gained 41 seats compared with the previous balloting.

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, economic 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

While women and minorities generally have full political rights, 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 DPS, but the Romany minority is more marginalized. Small Romany parties are active, and many Roma reportedly vote for the DPS, though none hold seats in the parliament. Members of far-right nationalist parties, including the United Patriots, engage in hate speech against ethnic Turks, Roma, Jews, Muslims, migrants, and refugees, among other groups, particularly during election periods, raising concerns about the normalization of xenophobia and discrimination.

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

Elected executive and legislative officials are generally able to set and implement policies without undue interference from external or unelected entities. However, oligarch politicians dominate the government and greatly influence policymaking.

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. Anticorruption laws are not adequately enforced, including in high-profile cases, contributing to a culture of impunity. The country remains subject to long-term monitoring by the EU’s cooperation and verification mechanism (CVM), whose annual reports have called for new legislative efforts to combat corruption.

In January 2018, the parliament overrode a presidential veto and adopted legislation that would create a centralized anticorruption commission to replace multiple existing bodies. The new commission would assess officials’ asset declarations and flag conflicts of interest, and it would have the authority to initiate the seizure of illegally obtained assets. Some analysts remained concerned about the effectiveness and possible politicization of the new agency.

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 not well enforced. Public access to information about the budgets and spending of various government agencies is often lacking in practice.

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 face threats and occasional violence. In May 2018, investigative journalist Hristo Geshov was assaulted outside his home by an unidentified attacker. Two other reporters were arrested and briefly detained while investigating alleged fraud involving EU funds in September. In October, Viktoria Marinova, a television journalist who had recently interviewed the two fraud investigators, was raped and killed in the town of Ruse. However, a suspect was quickly arrested with the help of German authorities, and despite ongoing doubts, there was apparently no evidence linking the crime to Marinova’s work.

The media sector is pluralistic, but many outlets are 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 and limiting the diversity of perspectives available to the public. News outlets often tailor coverage to suit the interests of their owners. In July 2018, newspapers in a conglomerate owned by lawmaker Delyan Peevski called on a television station to dismiss a presenter who had inquired about Peevski’s businesses on air.

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 members of minority faiths in the mostly Orthodox Christian country have reported instances of harassment and discrimination, and some local authorities have prohibited proselytizing and other religious activities by such groups. A 2016 law that imposed fines for the wearing of face-covering garments in public locations was widely understood to be directed against Muslims.

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. A number of mass demonstrations proceeded without incident during 2018, with participants airing grievances on issues including construction projects in national parks, a controversial annual march by far-right groups, and the cost of living.

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, which are generally able to operate, but some public employees cannot legally strike, and none are permitted to bargain collectively. Private employers often discriminate against union members, including by terminating them, without facing serious repercussions. In May 2018, trade union federations organized protests calling for salaries to match those of other EU countries.

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 membership, but it is still prone to politicization. A new Supreme Judicial Council, which is responsible for judicial appointments and management, was installed under revised rules in 2017, with half the members elected by fellow magistrates and half by a two-thirds parliamentary majority. The parliamentary portion of the process was criticized for political bargaining and a lack of transparency, though the CVM report released in November 2018 generally praised the initial performance of the new council. Other recent reforms strengthened the inspectorate responsible for investigating conflicts of interest among judges, verifying their asset declarations, and contributing to disciplinary proceedings.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4

Constitutional rights to due process are not always upheld. Police have been accused of misconduct including arbitrary arrests and failure to inform suspects of their rights. Public trust in the justice system is low due to its reputed vulnerability to political and other outside pressure.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4

Although the population faces few acute threats to physical security, police brutality, including abuse of suspects in custody, remains a problem. 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 are 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.

Migrants and asylum seekers have reportedly faced various forms of mistreatment by Bulgarian authorities, including beatings and extortion. According to a July 2018 report by the Bulgaria-based Foundation for Access to Rights, the rate of detention for asylum seekers has remained high despite a decline in new arrivals in recent years.

Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal, but societal bias against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people reportedly persists. In July 2018, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on preventing gender-based violence was unconstitutional, finding fault with its conceptualization of gender. Conservative critics argued that the convention, which the government had signed in 2016 and introduced in the parliament for possible ratification in January, would create a basis for expanded rights for LGBT people.

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 major restrictions on their freedom of movement. Corruption and bias can sometimes hamper efforts to change one’s place of employment. In 2017, the government issued a rule that restricted the ability of asylum seekers to move outside of the district where they are housed.

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

The legal and regulatory framework is generally supportive of property rights and private business, though property rights are not always respected in practice, and corruption continues to hamper business and investment. The so-called grey economy of undeclared business activity is estimated at nearly 30 percent of the gross domestic product.

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

The law generally grants equal rights to men and women regarding personal status matters such as marriage and divorce. Domestic violence remains a problem. Victims and NGOs have complained that state authorities are often ineffective in providing protection and pursuing criminal charges when abuse is 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

Labor laws provide basic protections against exploitative working conditions, but they do not extend in practice to informal or grey-market employment. Roma and other ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to trafficking for sexual and labor exploitation. Although the government has continued to step 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.