In Bulgaria, votes go to the highest bidder
Ten euros will buy a vote in Sunday's elections in Bulgaria, despite EU attempts to curb corruption.
The price of a vote in Bulgaria has more than doubled in a month's time. For the European elections, politicians could get away with paying 10 leva (5 euros) to secure someone's vote. For Sunday's national legislative elections, the price of a vote starts at 20 leva (10 euros).
"People actually come up to me to negotiate the price of their vote. They play the parties against each other," said Daniel Mitov (31), a candidate for the right-wing Blue Coalition in Pazardzik, a mid-sized town in central Bulgaria. Two months ago, he opened his campaign headquarters in a cafe in the centre of town; work meetings are held on the cafe terrace.
"Roma clan leaders, but ordinary Bulgarians as well, come to see me with lists of names and voter registration numbers. When I tell them to buzz off, they only see it as encouragement to drop the asking price."
Mitov leaned back in his seat and shot a glance at the headquarters of the social democratic party, a government coalition partner, a couple of houses down the road. They all do it, especially the ruling coalition parties, who can use taxpayers' money and European subsidies, Mitov claimed. Everybody except the Blue Coalition, of course. "We don't have the money, but even if we did have the money we wouldn't do it," he said.
Diana Kovatsjeva, director of the Bulgarian chapter of the anti-corruption advocacy group Transparency International, laughed. That's what they all say when you ask them point-blank, she said. "But they all do it."
Transparancy International first noted an escalation in vote-buying in Bulgaria two years ago. Since then the trend has persisted. "It's a snowball effect. If one party is doing it, the others don't want to be left behind."
According to a recent poll, 10 to 12 percent of Bulgarians are open to selling their vote to the highest bidder. The European Commission is worried about the functioning of the Bulgarian democracy. "It is going from bad to worse," said a commission official who requested anonymity.
Politicians see buying votes as an investment. They figure they will make the money back in no time once they're in power. Many Bulgarians say the prospect of the hundred of millions of European subsidies coming Bulgaria's way in the next few years have sharpened the appetite for a seat in parliament or the government even more.
Voter fraud warnings
"The more money, the further parties are prepared to go to get to power," said Emine Gyulestan (23), who is active in the youth movement of the party of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. "Real change will take a new generation of politicians."
Meanwhile, the political parties pay lip-service to the fight against voter fraud. Much like the health warning on a pack of cigarettes, every campaign poster or political TV ad in Bulgaria comes with a warning that buying votes is illegal.
It is now forbidden to take a cellphone into a voting booth in Bulgaria. That's because in earlier elections voters took pictures of the ballots to show to the politicians who paid for their votes. Proposals to count votes at the regional rather than the local level, in order to reduce social control, didn't make it through parliament.
On top of everything, several candidates in Sunday's elections may also be actual criminals. A twist in the Bulgarian electoral law meant that several suspected mob figures, recently released from pre-trial arrest, were allowed to be on the ballot.
Among them are the so-called 'brothers Galevi', Plamen Galev and Angel Hristov. They're not real brothers but business partners and the unofficial rulers of the small town of Dopnitsa, also known as the nerve centre of the stolen car trade in the Balkans. It is not unthinkable that the 'brothers' will actually get elected: many people in the districts where they're on the ballot depend on them for their livelihood.
During the European election campaign, another new phenomenon reared its ugly head: company-controlled voting. Factory owners are reported to put pressure on their workers to vote for them. This may be even worse than voter-buying, said Transparancy International's Kovatsjeva. "At least with voter-buying there is still some sense of personal choice."
In the past millions of EU subsidies earmarked for Bulgaria were frozen because of the rampant corruption. Everytime that happens, the Bulgarian government makes solemn promises that are just as quickly forgotten when the next election campaign comes around.
"We have tried encouragement, but they just laugh at you. We have tried threats, but that hasn't worked either. I know it's a cliche but it's the political will that's lacking," said the frustrated EU official. "Apparently, there are bigger things at stake here than EU subsidies or happy Bulgarian citizens."