A topic that is discussed a lot around elections time in Bulgaria is the Roma community and vote buying. One persistent narrative is the notion of the controlled and bought Roma vote, which has been touted by some as being crucial in determining the results of Bulgarian elections.
However, an analysis suggests that this perspective is not only simplistic but is also largely overstated.
Understanding demographic nuances is crucial when assessing the impact of any specific community on electoral outcomes. Even if we were to assume that every single Roma voter was controlled or bought (a gross exaggeration), this demographic would still not possess the sheer numbers needed to significantly impact the overall electoral outcome.
Bulgaria has an estimated population of around 6.5 million people. According to the most recent data on the ethnic composition of the population based on the National Statistical Institute’s (NSI) Census 2021, which is held once every 10 years, the number of Bulgarians who self-identify as Roma is declining.
Only 4.4 percent, or 266,720 people, identified as Roma in 2021, compared to roughly 4.9 percent, or 325,343 in 2011. This amounts to a 0.5% decrease.
People from the Roma ethnic group are distributed territorially in all regions of the country. The largest share of the Roma ethnic group is in the regions of Sliven – 15.3%, and Montana – 11.5%, followed by Shumen – 8.0%, Dobrich – 7.2%, and Yambol – 7.1%.
Also, not all Roma are 18+ in order to have the right to vote. A significant part of the Roma are children. According to the NSI data 26.6% of the Roma in Bulgaria are between 0-14 years old.
This makes it the youngest community in the country. Yet one of the fastest declining ones.
And while the presented number may look significant, it is essential to understand that the Roma community, in terms of voting capacity, still remains a minority compared to the overall population.
Voter turnout, affected by various factors such as political engagement, awareness, or socio-economic barriers, often doesn’t represent the entire eligible voting populace. Thus, when considering the Roma population, only a fraction would be casting votes, further reducing the potential impact of this group on the election outcome.
Different segments within the community, based on factors like age, gender, education, and socio-economic status, may have differing political priorities.
Hence, viewing the entire community through a singular lens, based merely on ethnicity, can lead to inaccurate conclusions.
The numbers talk
An analysis of the last five parliamentary elections and the local elections in 8 Roma polling stations in Sliven shows a record low turnout, ranging between 5% and 8%. Such was the turnout among some of the Roma who live in Nadezhda, one of the biggest Roma neighborhoods in Bulgaria.
Out of nearly 9,000 eligible voters, only 559 votes (including the votes of party advocates and observers) ended up in the polls in the April Parliamentary elections this year. This makes a turnout of 6.28%.
The number of polling stations in VI Primary School “Bratya Miladinovi” is exactly 8. Almost 100% of the votes were casted by Roma people from the Nadezdha district. A significant number of Roma also vote in the neighboring VIII Primary School “Yuri Gagarin”, where the polling stations are rather mixed (both Roma and Bulgarians vote there), which makes it difficult to analyze to what extent the voters there are Roma.
As for the local elections on October 29, 2023, the number of people who went out to vote for their favorite party and candidate is slightly more than 1300 people, while the people with a right to vote are more than 8400. This means that the voter turnout is about 13%.
It is important to note that over 41% of all votes received were invalid. This can happen due to various reasons – incorrect ticking of the box, torn paper, drawing or writing outside the indicated box , etc.
This is a consequence of the all-paper voting, as two days before election day the Central Election Commission announced that the machine voting will be cancelled. The decision comes in the wake of a political scandal involving a secret report by the State Agency “National Security.”
Who do the Roma vote for?
The Roma community in Nadezhda neighborhood voted interestingly in the elections – GERB and DPS had almost the same number of votes for all parliamentary elections combined.
It is noteworthy that the distribution of votes by party corresponds to a certain extent to the distribution of votes by party among the Bulgarian community. This is a sign that vote buying and selling had no weight in the elections. Or if it had, it was too little to make a difference.
At the time of the election, there were rumors in the neighborhood that some parties were buying votes. An interesting phenomenon, however, was the decision of some Roma to take the money offered to them with the clear knowledge that at the ballot box they would vote for whichever formation they chose and sympathized with.
One person I spoke to from the neighborhood, who asked to remain anonymous, said:
The money is ours anyway. It is stolen from us. We better take it and vote for whoever we want.
In fact, this is a narrative that has been promoted over the years by various Roma activists, prominent figures, and organizations in order to counterbalance attempts by parties and candidates to buy votes.
This sentiment towards vote-buying actually helps fight the so-called ballot economy. Taking the money offered in exchange for a vote and then voting for whomever one sees fit leads to losses for the parties and candidates who wish to buy votes. It also leads to a dissolution of the ‘business relationship’ between vote buyers, parties, and candidates.
Paper voting did not bring the Roma back to the ballot box
On December 1, 2022, with the votes of GERB, DPS, and BSP, it was decided to have mixed voting in all polling stations – both with machines and paper ballots. Then We Continue the Change (PP), Democratic Bulgaria (DB), Revival, and Bulgarian Rise voted against this proposal.
One of the biggest concerns with the return of the paper ballot was that these changes would bring back the bought and controlled vote. In fact, this did not happen in the 8 polling stations in the VI Primary School “Bratya Miladinovi” during the parliamentary elections.
Roma, who were eligible to vote in the parliamentary elections in April this year, did not line up at the polling stations again, as was the case in the previous elections, which were entirely by machine voting.
Even in the October 2022 election, when the election was entirely by machine, the total number of votes received was 578, while in the mixed vote the votes received were nearly 20 votes less.
The 8 polling stations we looked at in Sliven are important for understanding the electoral dynamics among the Roma community. The Nadezhda neighborhood has the reputation of being a dangerous ghetto where parties like GERB, BSP, and DPS can easily buy the votes they need, even in the last moment of Election Day.
Diminishing the democratic voice and needs of the people
One of the most disconcerting implications of the narrative surrounding the “controlled” or “bought” Roma vote in Bulgaria is its inadvertent effect on diminishing the democratic voice of the people.
This discourse, when perpetuated, does more than just misinform – it risks undermining the very essence of the democratic process by casting aspersions on a specific segment of the electorate, thereby marginalizing their genuine concerns and aspirations.
In any democratic society, every vote is an expression of individual agency and choice. By suggesting that an entire community’s electoral behavior can be bought or controlled, we inadvertently strip them of this agency.
This not only casts doubt on the integrity of the electoral process but also delegitimizes the genuine choices and decisions made by the Roma community. In essence, it renders them voiceless in a system that’s meant to amplify every citizen’s voice equally.
Furthermore, the narrative serves as a convenient diversion from more pressing and systemic issues. Rather than addressing concerns such as socio-economic disparities, educational challenges, or issues of representation that the Roma community faces, the discourse shifts to questioning their electoral integrity.
This deflection risks sidelining urgent issues that deserve policy attention, reducing them to mere political talking points.
This narrative inadvertently provides a convenient smokescreen for politicians and parties. Instead of engaging with substantive issues or self-reflecting on electoral losses or gains, they can deflect blame onto alleged manipulations, absolving themselves of accountability.
Poverty is the problem, not the Roma
For the Roma living in poverty, economic issues such as employment opportunities, social welfare, and accessible public services are not just policy points – they’re urgent, everyday realities.
This urgency often thrusts these immediate concerns into the limelight during elections, making political promises offering short-term relief particularly resonant, even if they might be detrimental in the long run.
According to the National Statistical Institute (NSI), more than 78% of the Bulgarian Roma live at risk of poverty or social exclusion.
This economic urgency is double-edged. On the one hand, it can lead to a heightened susceptibility to populist messages. Populist politicians, with their classic portrayal as champions of the ‘common people’ against an indifferent elite, can strike a chord with those who feel side-lined by mainstream politics.
On the other hand, this same economic urgency makes impoverished voters vulnerable to clientelistic practices, where tangible goods or immediate services might be more alluring than distant policy promises.
One common scheme is a vote in exchange for firewood or securing a job. This is an extremely attractive offer for people in small and remote settlements who find it difficult to secure work or firewood cheaply.
Often mayors of small villages secure their next term in office this way.
Chronic poverty also takes a toll on one’s trust in institutions. If, election after election, life’s hardships remain unchanged, disillusionment sets in. This can result in diminished voter turnout, with many feeling their vote won’t make a difference in the system.
That is what another Roma told me when I talked with him. He said:
People don’t see the point of voting. The same promises, the same empty talk. Nobody cares about the people in the neighborhood. Candidates only come during elections and we never see them again.
Poverty is the greatest enemy of democracy and fair voting. When you live in poverty and insecurity every penny counts.
When someone offers to give you 50 levs for your vote, those 50 levs mean food for the next few days for you, your family, your children.
People living in extreme poverty can hardly understand the importance of their vote. But even when they do understand, food is more important. That is why active campaigns against buying and selling votes should not be directed against ordinary people, but against the parties and candidates who profit from it. The problem lies elsewhere, not in the Roma.