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Entering Parliament as Independent: Mission Impossible

On August 20, Sofia’s Multi-member Constituency No. 25 Election Commission registered Luna Yordanova as the only independent candidate for the October 2, 2022 early parliamentary elections.
This will be Yordanova’s second bid for elective office: in 2021 she ran for president (again as an independent) and won 21,733 votes (0.81% of the total).
On October 2, the candidate, better known as the pop folk star LUNA, will face formidable competition from top-of-the-list contestants in the same crucial constituency: GERB leader Boyko Borissov, Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Korneliya Ninova, Vazrazhdane leader Kostadin Kostadinov, and VMRO Co-chair Angel Dzhambazki.
Non-party aspirants first got a chance of winning a legislative seat in 1990, when the 7th Grand National Assembly became a fact after the first democratic elections in Bulgaria’s contemporary history. This was also the first and last time that any of them have succeeded: Rossen Karadimov won in Yambol, and Stoyan Mihailov was elected in Botevgrad. Neither could claim to be really non-partisan: Karadimov had been the last First Secretary of the Dimitrov Young Communist League and headed its successor, Bulgarian Democratic Youth, and Mihailov had served for ten years as Secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee.
Tiny Fraction
A total of 76 contestants not backed by a party or coalition tried their luck in the twelve parliamentary elections held between 1991 and 2021. They represented a tiny fraction compared to the estimated 40,000-plus party and coalition nominees during that period. The number of independents declined steadily, from nineteen in 1991 to eight in 1994, ten in 1997, eleven in 2001, thirteen in 2005, four in 2009, three in 2014, nine in 2017, two in 2013, April 2021 and November 2021, and one in July 2021. Their performance dwindled, too, from 52,617 votes in aggregate (0.95% of the total) in 1991 to 12,561 (0.24%) in 1994, 19,335 (0.45%) in 1997, 9,365 (0.21%) in 2001, 12,827 (0.35%) in 2005, 1,185 in 2014, 428 in April 2021, 142 in July 2021, and 182 in November 2021. Their best achievement came in 2005, when the 3,754 votes cast for Radoslav Koev outnumbered the results of four of the parties competing with him in Varna.
Most non-partisan candidates are barely known outside their immediate neighbourhoods, but there are exceptions. In 2014, Nikola Vaptsarov, grandnephew and namesake of the communist poet, ran in Blagoevgrad, and Oktai Enimehmedov was temporarily released from house arrest to campaign in Burgas.
In January 2013, Enimehmedov tried to fire a gas pistol at Ahmed Dogan while the then Movement for Rights and Freedoms leader was delivering a speech at his party’s National Conference in Sofia. The assailant served three and a half years in prison for threatening to murder the politician.
Vaptsarov garnered 425 votes (0.25% of the constituency total), and Enimehmedov 474 (0.27%). In November 2021, again in Burgas, Petar “Perata” Nizamov won 129 votes (0.09%). He gained notoriety in 2016 after making a citizen arrest of a group of migrants near Bulgaria’s border with Turkey, and in 2017 he manhandled a TV crew member during an anti-Roma protest in Asenovgrad.
Popular in Majoritarian Elections
By contrast, independent candidacies are quite common and successful in presidential and mayoral elections which, however, are held according to a majoritarian system. Thus, at the last elections of President and Vice President of the Republic, in November 2021 (the ones in which LUNA took part), as many as nine of the 23 pairs of candidates were fielded by nomination committees, including the winners (Rumen Radev and Iliana Iotova) and the runners-up (Anastas Gerdjikov and Nevyana Miteva). Needless to say, this is used as a stratagem to attract voters that may not fancy the party or coalition actually backing the respective ticket or to allow candidates to solicit support from political forces that are otherwise regarded as incompatible.
Curiously, independents (then called “non-party members”) could get to parliament even under the totalitarian regime, and a total of 170 did so in the ten legislatures elected between 1944 and 1989. This semblance of democracy, though, could hardly disguise the unquestionable dominance of the Communist Party. Perversely, the 6th Grand National Assembly (1946-1949) had one independent member belonging to the Communist-controlled Fatherland Front and one independent who was part of the opposition.
Dice Heavily Loaded
Enabling non-party candidates to run for parliament is intended as a way of balancing the anonymity of the candidate lists that are usually controlled and arranged by the top people in parties or coalitions. Along with preferences, this gives voters an opportunity to pick an individual of their choice. Parties, too, take advantage of these “majoritarian” elements in an otherwise proportional-representation system by putting popular figures on top of their lists as bait for voters. The media connive by focusing on these leading party/coalition candidates while largely ignoring the rest.
To get elected to Parliament, an independent must gain valid votes which are no less than the constituency electoral quota (the total number of valid votes cast in the constituency divided by the number of seats allocated for that constituency).
In practice, the rules discriminate against independents: unlike the candidates of parties and coalitions who can stand simultaneously in two constituencies, non-party contestants are limited to a single constituency in which they must gather 1,000 signatures in support of their registration (compared to 2,500 signatures required from a party or coalition that can be gathered in all 31 constituencies countrywide). Besides this, a nomination committee is not allowed to open a fund-raising bank account of its own and has to make do with cash or the personal accounts of its members, which can get it into trouble with the post-election reporting of campaign spending. Last but not least, the names of independents appear at the bottom of the ballot, after all parties and coalitions, followed only by the “None Of The Above” option.
Public figure and international analyst David Levy highlighted these defects in a National Radio interview in April 2021. He insisted on a reform that would provide a level playing field for all contestants, allowing non-party candidates to enter the race in multiple constituencies and even at the national level.
Levy is a “veteran” independent candidate: he ran for parliament in 2009, 2013, and in all three elections in 2021, when he got 259 votes (0.16%) in April, 142 (0.10%) in July, and 53 (0.04%) in November. Guess why he will not be on the ballot for October 2.