6 April 2017
For the Bulgarian parliamentary elections on 26 March 2017, a total of 35 polling stations were opened in Turkey. Considering the drastic reduction in the number of polling stations in Turkey compared to the previous parliamentary elections and the fact that the largest Bulgarian migrant community lives in the city of Bursa, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) sent an observer to monitor the election day in the Turkish city. On election day, BHC monitored the electoral process in seven of the eight polling stations opened in the city and its surroundings.
According to official information published on the website of the Central Election Commission (CEC), the overall turnout in 2017 based on the number of signatures in the voter lists at the polling stations in Turkey was 33 005 people. In comparison, official figures show that in the previous parliamentary elections on 5 October 2014 the total number of polling stations in Turkey was 136, and the number of voters, based on the signatures in the voter lists, was 62 569 people, or almost double.
Most of all, the drastically reduced number of polling stations in Bursa, from 37 in 2014 to just eight in 2017, was highly insufficient given the large number of people with voting rights. This caused chaos, long queues and tension among voters and members of Precinct Election Commissions (PECs). The result was that many people gave up their voting right on account of the fact that they had to wait their turn for hours from the very start of the election process. BHC believes that the limit of 35 polling stations in non-EU countries is highly discriminatory and mainly directed against Bulgarian voters residing and exercising their right to vote in Turkey. In effect, it severely hindered and practically deprived voters of their rights and obligations.
Additionally, on 23 March 2017, or only three days before Election Day, the CEC introduced an additional restriction on the electoral rights of Bulgarian citizens abroad by requiring that under Art. 33, para. 2 in conjunction with Art. 243 of the Electoral Code declarations to be filled out only within the polling stations and signed in front of the members of PECs while voters are being entered in the electoral list. These guidelines contradict the requirements laid down by the Electoral Code, which lacks any restrictions and additional requirements regarding how and where this declaration should be filled out. This was confirmed by the decision of the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) on 15 March 2017 in which the judges’ panel accepts that according to the Electoral Code “[t]here is no requirement in place as to where a voter is supplied with [the declaration], how and where it should be completed and signed, so it is permissible for this to be done in any manner permitted by law”. Furthermore, these extraordinary guidelines were introduced only days before the election and without being recorded in the adopted by the CEC Methodological guidelines, which would have allowed them to be appealed in time.
An appeal against these guidelines was submitted nevertheless by the Democrats for Responsibility, Freedom and Tolerance (DOST) coalition on the following day, 24 March 2017. The appeal was received by the CEC at 4:57 PM, but the SAC received it at 9:25 AM on 27 March, the day after the election. This is why it was left without consideration by the SAC. It was procedurally inadmissible, as there was no longer any legal interest in contesting the CEC guidelines mentioned above.
The additional requirements introduced by the CEC hampered to a very wide extend the voting process in the Republic of Turkey by establishing unacceptable barriers for the voters to be able to exercise their voting rights. Besides slowing down the voting process, the requirement established by the CEC introduced a discriminatory requirement for a literacy qualification, which is not required from any of the Bulgarian citizens who exercise their voting rights on the territory of the country.
Furthermore, the members of the PECs in the city of Bursa introduced other exceptional restrictive measures, not foreseen by the electoral legislation, including prohibition of the possibility of the voters to assist one another in filling in the declarations by banning any talk between them.
All these measures, introduced by the legislator, CEC and PECs on the election day, disproportionately affected members of a particular group of Bulgarian citizens – the voters in the Republic of Turkey. Moreover, on the eve of the elections, media was flooded with information and propaganda against the casting of votes from this particular group of citizens. Finally, yet importantly, representatives of the coalition “United Patriots”, a nationalist electoral alliance in Bulgaria including the political parties – Bulgarian National Movement, National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria and Attack, were allowed by the Bulgarian authorities to block the Bulgarian checkpoints at the border with Turkey in order to effectively prevent voters residing in the Turkey to cross the border and cast their ballot in the country.
Based on all this, it can be concluded that there was a targeted campaign to limit the political rights of an entire group of citizens and deprive them of the opportunity to fulfil their right and duty to vote.
During the election monitoring, the BHC observed the following violations:
Despite the expectations for the gathering of a large number of people both in front of and inside the polling stations, preliminary organization concerning the queuing and entering of the polling stations was not established in most of the observed polling stations. This caused chaos and tension between the voters. Some of them were literally smashed by the crowd and those who finally managed to get to the polling station appeared to be unwell and in need of support.
The problem was particularly serious at the polling station in the Yıldırım quarter, where the lack of any organization and extreme nervousness among queuing voters caused the storming of about 15 people into the polling station, which required the suspension of the voting process for about 15 minutes until order was restored. In the same polling station, the voting process went very slowly – for the first six hours, from the start of the election day till 1:00 PM, only 248 people had voted. Members of the same PEC even called for a ban on voting for all people who had not previously enrolled in the voter list.
A large crowd also gathered in front of the polling station in the Yenibağlar quarter. Again, the BHC observed how the lack of organization lead to squabbles, physical shoving and pushing. Despite the calls of the BHC on members of the PEC and a Bulgarian consular officer to restore the order and introduce proper organization, this was not implemented within the period of observation of the polling station.
Some of the polling stations (those situated in the Yenibağlar quarter and Karaman quarter) were located on the second floor of the local schools without wheelchair access and regardless of the fact that school buildings were otherwise empty. The polling station in Kestel was also inaccessible, given the fact that there were a number of stairs, which had to be climbed in order for the voters to reach the polling station. Architectural environment hampering the access to public places constitutes discrimination according to the Protection Against Discrimination Act and can seriously restrict the ability of voters with mobility impairments to vote.
- As of 10:30 AM, the ballot box in the Yenibağlar polling station was not sealed with paper tape, regardless of the explicit requirements for this to happen before the start of the election day. Following the intervention of the BHC, the ballot box was sealed. In the same polling station, an advocate for the DOST coalition was standing by the ballot box, exercising control over the process of putting ballots inside the box by the voters. This is an unacceptable intervention of a party advocate in the voting process.