With Bulgarians set to go to the polls on November 14, police have confirmed they have launched probes into possible voter fraud after an RFE/RL investigation into the conduct of the country's last elections in July.
The latest investigation by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service found what appeared to be widespread abuse of mobile balloting on July 11 in two towns in the southern Pazardzhik Province, a stronghold of the centrist Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) party, which attracts the support of members of Bulgaria's Muslim, Romany, and Turkish communities. Mobile balloting is when people vote from home due to a medical condition or old age.
An earlier RFE/RL probe focusing on the northeastern city of Razgrad found that medical documents needed to qualify for mobile voting had either been forged or filed on behalf of people who later said they had not submitted such a request.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said its observers found the July 11 snap parliamentary elections in Bulgaria to have been "competitive with fundamental freedoms generally respected."
But some Bulgarian politicians aren't convinced, bolstered by the recent findings, and fear there could be even more fraud in the crucial elections on November 14.
A NATO and European Union member, Bulgaria has been plagued by rampant corruption since overthrowing communism more than three decades ago. It is the EU's poorest member and routinely comes in at the bottom of the bloc for perceptions of corruption and media freedom.
Bulgarians will vote not only in parliamentary elections on November 14, but will pick a president as well. It will be the third time this year Bulgaria holds parliamentary elections after two previous votes in April and July failed to produce a government.
Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who was at the helm for more than a decade, resigned in April after widespread anti-corruption protests against him and his center-right GERB party, formally known as the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria.
The graft and cronyism linked to infrastructure projects, which appeared to benefit GERB friends and associates rather than average Bulgarians, not only sparked protests but a rebuke from the European Anti-Fraud Office.
Double Vote, Double Trouble?
The country's president, Rumen Radev, who is seeking a second term in office and picked the date for the parliamentary poll, said holding the two votes together would save time and money. However, given the fresh allegations of vote rigging during the July parliamentary polls, some Bulgarian politicians fear the double vote could spell double trouble.
"There was abuse before. These elections will give us two results on one day," said Antoaneta Tsoneva, a member of the Bulgarian National Assembly, the country's parliament, and a member of the centrist Democratic Bulgaria electoral alliance, which placed fourth in the July elections with 12.5 percent of the vote .
"It is an attempt to avoid voting machines and direct how voters cast their ballots. We have proof of it being used before," Tsoneva told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, referring to mobile voting, which critics say is susceptible to tampering because of its use of paper ballots.
The Interior Ministry confirmed to RFE/RL that an election fraud probe linked to the July 11 vote had been launched in Razgrad and other unspecified areas.
Nebi Bozov, mayor of Sarnitsa, one of the two towns in Pazardzhik Province where RFE/RL detected unusual mobile ballot voting during the July 11 parliamentary vote, denied to RFE/RL that there had been any "irregularities."
In Sarnitsa, 198 ballots were cast using mobile voting. That meant electoral teams going to the homes of people who had requested to cast their ballots in that manner because a medical condition precluded them from getting to a polling station.
In Bulgaria, mobile voting is conducted using paper ballots, unlike polling stations where votes are tabulated electronically. Those paper ballots, critics contend, make mobile voting open to ballot stuffing.
In Sarnitsa, one mobile polling station was employed to collect those 198 votes on July 11, raising questions how that was possible given the voting day was 13 hours long from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and collecting one vote usually takes at least 15 minutes.
Asked how such a high number of mobile votes had been collected in such a relatively short time, Mayor Bozov said he "has a good organization."
Told of Bozov's remarks, member of parliament Tsoneva retorted sarcastically: "This good organization will meet our decisive resistance."
Most of those 198 mobile votes -- 173 -- went to the DPS, official records indicate. That contrasts with results from polling stations in Sarnitsa, where DPS won just 50 percent of the vote.
The DPS party, which came in fifth place overall in July with 10.6 percent of the vote, was in the headlines earlier this year when one of its members, Delyan Peevski, a media magnate and powerbroker in Bulgaria, was among a trio of influential Bulgarians and companies belonging to them that were slapped with economic sanctions by the United States for their "extensive roles" in corruption in Bulgaria.
Peevski is again seeking a seat for the party in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The Democratic Bulgaria alliance on November 8 requested that police probe the mobile voting results not only in Sarnitsa, but Batak, another town in Pazardzhik Province, Tsoneva, who represents the province, told RFE/RL.
On October 31, Tsoneva confronted Yordan Tsonev (no relation), the DPS leader for Pazardzhik Province, about the alleged vote rigging on the streets in Velingrad, a town in the province, an encounter she videoed and put on her Facebook page.
In comments to RFE/RL, Tsoneva said she had told Tsonev that her party would not stand for a repeat of the alleged vote rigging. Tsonev did not respond to requests from RFE/RL for comment.
Bozov, the mayor of Sarnitsa, said a commission had been established to check all the applications, including medical documents and certificates, needed to qualify for mobile voting. "We've done everything, but we're still not doctors," Bozov told RFE/RL.
Apparent Abuse Of Medical Claims
It was unclear how many applications had been filed for mobile voting for the upcoming elections on November 14.
An earlier investigation by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, published on October 29, found what appeared to be widescale abuse of medical claims required to qualify for mobile voting in Razgrad.
Just before the July 11 parliamentary vote, more than 2,500 requests for mobile voting were filed due to illness. Police later said an unspecified number of these requests had been made by people who later said they denied filing them.
Results from mobile voting in the Razgrad region during the July 11 parliamentary elections show that more than 90 percent of ballots cast went to the DPS. That compares with the 45 percent that the DPS received in the Razgrad region in voting at polling stations.
Verifying the medical documentation accompanying any request for mobile voting is the remit of mayors in jurisdictions where such requests are made. In Razgrad, five of the seven district mayors are members of the DPS.
RFE/RL published its report on the voting irregularities in Razgrad three days after the Bulgarian Interior Ministry announced it was launching a probe on possible voter fraud there.