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Parliamentary elections in Bulgaria before 1946

Voting in Bulgaria was not born yesterday - Part II

When were the first printed ballots and proportional representation introduced, and what ismultiple negative preferential voting?

Polling station in the 1920s
Photo: archive

After the country’s liberation in 1878, modern and democratic norms of universal suffrage were enshrined in Bulgaria’s first constitution – the Turnovo constitution. Up until World War I the MPs were elected according to the majority voting system. As the years passed legislation was streamlined. The electoral bureaus grew more and more accessible which boosted voter turnout – from 20% at the first elections in 1879 to over 50% and even 80% at the beginning of the 20th century. Interestingly, the first ballots were filled in either by the voters themselves or by party canvassers.

“The ballots were handwritten, and in theory all voters had to be literate,” explains Assist. Prof. Svetoslav Zhivkov, PhD from the Department of History of Bulgaria at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. “But in practice the law did not oblige voters to write out their ballot themselves, i.e. they could be pre-filled before being submitted. With a 3% level of literacy among the male population this was common practice. Colour ballots were introduced as part of a reform package in the years from 1909 until 1913. The reforms included the introduction of proportional representation. The idea of having different colour ballots was to make voting easier for the illiterate voters – so they would only have to choose the party colour. Printed ballots appeared, obligatory nomination of the people seeking to become members of parliament was introduced. With the majority voting system anyone whose name appeared on the ballot was considered a candidate.”

Historian Svetoslav Zhivkov

Bulgaria was among the first countries in the world to have introduced proportional representation, alongside Serbia, Sweden, Finland, Belgium and Cuba. The idea was to enhance democratic representation at the elections because with a majority voting system a great many of the votes cast for the failing candidates were rendered invalid and this distorted the election result.

“With a majority voting system, in multi-member constituencies, the political force which came first – and which was usually the ruling party – in the first years of the 20th century won around 45-50% of the votes. But sometimes it would win 80% and even more of the seats. That was a problem for Europe as well, and so some of the countries introduced single-member constituencies instead of proportional representation. The other countries – Bulgaria included – preferred to keep the multi-member constituency principle. There was a second motive to this proportional representation system – it made the election of the party leaders much easier.”

A majority voting element was added to the proportional representation system early on – in 1912 – voters were entitled to cross out any candidates for MPs on the party ticket they did not like.

“In political lingo this is called multiple negative preferential voting. If a candidate has more than half of the negative votes for a given party in the region, even if he was top of the list, he would slip to last. In this way the most disapproved of candidates would not get the support of the voters. In 1923 another change was introduced – the number of seats for a given constituency was reduced – from 15 down to 3.”

How were parliaments elected even under non-party regimes and have the ruling parties in Bulgaria invariably been fated to win elections? Find out in part III of the series from historian Svetoslav Zhivkov.

To be continued…

Translated from the Bulgarian by Milena Daynova

Photos: library

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