The Institute for Public Environment Development (IPED) is a nonprofit organization working for social change in Bulgaria for the benefit of the civil society. The Institute aims to increase the civic participation in governance, curb the influence of corrupt money on politics, promote fair electoral practices, and investigate mechanisms of malfeasance and abuse of power.
The Organization’s core mission is to promote a culture of civic engagement and participation in the democratic process in the country; to develop and implement mechanisms for accountability and civic control over the public institutions and their activities; to introduce new practices and models that can strengthen the integrity and effectiveness of the public administration. Key activities and initiatives address subjects such as Electoral Law Analysis, Election Day Observations, Roma Minority Civic Inclusion, as well as Data Research and Reporting.
In 2015, the Institute was successful in its efforts to obtain the release of more than 4 years worth of data from the General Directorate of Civil Registration and Administrative Service, detailing change of permanent and current address registrations of Bulgarian citizens. This valuable data allowed the mapping and analysis of their movement across Bulgaria’s 265 municipalities over time. The project uncovered a very clear pattern of waves of change of current address before key election deadlines, in order to allow voters to influence local election outcomes, while formally staying within the rules of the Electoral laws.
In 2013, the Institute initiated a campaign for preferential voting that would infuse a strong dose of democratization to the internal political process of Bulgaria’s major parties, by allowing voters to rearrange proportional party lists at the ballotbox by picking their preferred candidates. This mechanism was first implemented at the 2014 European Parliament elections, affected the outcome in some important ways and enjoyed instant popularity.
Despite initially approving the mechanism into law, the top parties’ leadership, threatened by the voters’ newly found ballotbox power, did their best to discredit and render the measure ineffectual by trying to raise the thresholds for rearrangement and discussing getting rid of it altogether. Their main arguments being that the extra option is making voting cumbersome and complicated, hence is not being used by the electorate.
In response, the Institute, using extensive electoral data provided by the Central Electoral Commission, was able to demonstrate to the lawmakers that the mechanism is not only good in theory, but is also being embraced by the voters. That analysis convinced the party elites that tampering with the measure is likely to exact a steep political price and so they dropped their bid.
Campaign Finance and Accounting:
In another impactful initiative, the Institute successfully lobbied the National Audit Office to make available to the public all official campaign disclosures by the political parties, including their public and private sources of funding and the declared campaign media and advertising expenditures. As a result, the campaign process gained in transparency, leading to two important investigations. The first one in 2014 raised huge questions on the legitimacy of the funding of European MP Nikolay Barekov’s campaign and effectively ended what looked like the unstoppable rise of yet another Eastern European populist.
The second investigation focused on the 2015 referendum for Electronic Voting. A major step towards more transparent electoral practices in Bulgaria, It was still used as an opportunity to funnel funds. A series of shell Referendum Initiative Committees were created with the sole purpose of receiving government subsidy. Furnishing lists with most likely forged signatures, several “No” campaign committees were established in Bulgaria’s Northeast. They quickly proceeded to funnel hundreds of thousands of Euros from their state subsidies into a couple of low-traffic sites owned by the very same political lobbyists who had founded the committees. It was a blatant act of abuse of the system, and constituted a direct conflict of interest for the chairperson of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), who was also a member of the network of political consultants behind the “No” committees. The ensuing scandal helped discredit the “No”-campaign and while the lobbyists suffered no institutional reaction or investigation, the “Yes”-campaign achieved an overwhelming result, giving yet another good mechanism in the hands of the Bulgarian voters to counter electoral manipulations.
A very important issue connecting election fraud with lack of economic and civic development, controlled voting is one of the key themes in the Institute’s projects. While it is very difficult to penetrate the criminal networks and corporate interests smothering people’s free choice, especially in poor and in minority areas, there is evidence of the impact of controlled voting both in the form of skewed data and of eyewitness reports. Developing observation resources, investigating the impact of the phenomenon and proposing the mechanism for countering its effects plays a central role in the Institute’s activities.
Bulgarian Recipes for Cooking Up Elections paints a picture of 5 of the most widespread and damaging election fraud mechanisms in Bulgaria. Stepping on the extensive data gathering and analysis performed by the Institute’s team, the project seeks to tell an engaging and clear story that explains the methods and shows the faces of people most affected by election corruption in Bulgaria. All of the Institute’s analyses and data are open to the public and available in our blog, Open Parliament. Election Recipes aims to show the human context of unfair elections, as well as expose the direct connection between election tampering with the disbursement of public funds and the lack of economic development in many regions of the EU’s poorest member state.