The distant vote: voting from abroad becomes a hot issue in the Bulgarian parliamentary elections campaign.
The opposition blames the Ministry for not enabling all Bulgarians abroad to vote in the elections, by failing to open enough polling stations. According to two parties in particular, the right-wing Blue Coalition and the populist right-wing Order, Law and Justice (OLG) party, a conspiracy exists to discourage Bulgarian expatriates, mainly those living in western European countries, from voting. The parties allege that the Ministry favours Bulgarians in Turkey because it has opened far more polling stations there.
The opposition cited Ministry data revealing that out of 58 000 applications Bulgarian expatriates have filed for voting at the elections, 44 174 were filed by Bulgarians living in Turkey. Out of 259 polling stations the Ministry has opened abroad, 123 were in Turkey.
The opposition also voiced concern because of several complaints from Bulgarians living in western European countries, sent to the media and the Ministry, about the small number of polling stations outside diplomatic missions. The Ministry said that some countries prohibited opening polling stations outside diplomatic missions. Such was the case with Greece, Canada, Macedonia and, most notably, Germany, where most Bulgarians' complaints emanated.
Turkey did not have such a ban, hence the high number of polling stations. The Ministry did make a break-through in France where a polling station will be opened in Toulouse. This, according to the opposition, suggested that if the Ministry had shown more effort and persistence, other countries could also have opened more polling stations.
The back story
Complaints about the poor support Bulgarian expatriates receive from their embassy are longstanding. But at election time the issue suddenly acquires a political edge. The Ministry even said it would investigate allegations of bad treatment in Bulgarian embassies in Albania, Cyprus and Chicago.
These elections mark the first occasion whereby the votes of Bulgarians abroad are of a concern on their own. Usually the issue is just used as another way to stigmatise Bulgarians living in Turkey. Until now, the so called Turkish vote--as the media dubs mass voting by Bulgarians who share dual citizenship with Turkey--has always been viewed as foul play on the part of the ruling coalition partner, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which traditionally represents Muslim Bulgarians. Certainly one of the biggest Bulgarian expatriate communities is in Turkey. It is also true that hundreds of specially-arranged buses tend to arrive in Bulgaria from Turkey on election day so that these people can vote. People so transported tend not to reveal who paid for the buses. When asked who they will they vote for, however, the MRF is always the answer.
According to MRF's opponents, these loyal votes of Bulgarian expatriates have always put the MRF one step ahead of rivals in the race for Parliament. But instead of trying to win some of the "Turkish vote" opposition parties decided to turn to Bulgarians living in western countries by raising the issue of equality in voting abroad. In so doing the opposition has effectively set a line between the "Turkish vote"--leaving it in the MRF sphere of influence--and the "western vote", keeping it for themselves. But while the MRF makes great pains to consolidate its Turkish support, the right-wing parties have only just realised that votes of Bulgarians in western Europe could weigh in their favour.
What's at stake
Elections always come down to one thing: votes. If the MRF can count on a minimum of 44 000 votes (the number of applications filed from Turkey, disregarding those who are 'bused' in to vote in Bulgaria), then the 'constituency' for right-wing parties in western Europe and the US is more unclear. Accounts differ about the number of Bulgarians living abroad and how many of them will vote at the elections. According to the law, one can vote abroad even without filing an application in advance. The latter serve only as a criteria for opening a polling station (there has to be a minimum of 100 to open one).
In the 2005 elections, a total of 66 628 Bulgarians voted abroad, of whom 43 600 voted in Turkey. So, if rightwing parties' calculations are correct, they could count on little more then 20 000 votes coming from abroad. Unfortunately for the three rightwing parties, however, their vote is likely to be divided among them, so not boosting their performance markedly. The MRF, by contrast, can count on most of the "Turkish vote".
Perhaps the only favourable fallout from this whole episode is that Bulgarians in western Europe managed, for the first time, to get their complaints about the lack of support from their embassies heard.