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The failed referendum in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria

The failed referendum in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria


More than 90 per cent of the people, who cast their vote in the local referendum organised in the town of Stara Zagora, Central Bulgaria, answered positively to the question whether the Zmeyovo testing ground should be closed down. However, the referendum held on 26 May 2013 failed because of the low voter turnout. Ivailo Georgiev, member of Democracy International, has researched the issues around the referendum for Democracy International.
Ivailo lives in Sofia, Bulgaria.

The reasons for the referendum

According to environmental organizations the motive for conducting the referendum is air pollution in Stara Zagora since 2002 because of activity of the central artillery technical testing ground (TSATIP) in the Zmeyovo culprit. The track was built in 1970 on an area of 100 square kilometres. It carried military trials to destroy old warheads, including rocket engines.

According to local allergists during recent years, cases of allergic skin diseases in Stara Zagora have increased nearly five times, and their pathology is nonspecific and difficult to handle. It is also believed that the polygon has underground facilities where they can utilize/disassemble ammunition. Analysess of experts from public institutions, however, do not prove conclusively that the polygon is the source of the contamination.

The administrative battle before the referendum

Councilors of political parties of VMRO, BSP and Union “Stara Zagora” requested to hold a referendum, taking up the initiative of the organization "Clean air over Stara Zagora." The municipal legislation  foresees that vote must be scheduled and adopted. 44 out of 51 councilors voted "yes." Prosecutors subsequently announced the vote illegal on the ground that it concerns a matter beyond the powers of the municipality and the Court. The court refused to cancel the referendum and the prosecution appealed to the Supreme (Supreme Administrative Court). Therefore, the issue was set back for further consideration in Stara Zagora. The Department of Defense intervened in the administrative battle and announced that it would not accept the results of the referendum. It claimed that the issue was beyond the powers of the local authority and that the matter was of importance to national security. The legality of the referendum is also attacked by the District Prosecutor's Office, but due to administrative errors (the complaint was sent after the certain term), on April 22nd the administrative court of Stara Zagora took the decision to allow the referendum to be held. But noticed that the referendum" will only be recommendatory in character."

The referendum was calculated to cost about 200,000 levs (ca. 100,000 EUR). The fund is provided from the reserve of the municipal budget for local activities.

The local referendum law

Local referendums in Bulgaria are to be held due to updated electoral  lists taken from the very last elections for municipal councilors and mayors. Reports on electoral lists are made in the administrative offices, town hall, at the mayor and in pensioners' clubs. Those citizens are entitled to vote who have a permanent or present address in the municipality six months before the date of a local referendum. Ballot includes the question with two possible answers - "YES" or "NO" written in the same font. 

The referendum is considered as valid when the same amount of voters as in the recent elections of the municipal council cast their vote. For the case of Stara Zagora this were 68.500 people. The proposal is adopted when there more than 50 per cent of all eligible voters vote "YES" or “NO”.

The information campaign 

The legislation allow the information campaign to begin 30 days before the date of holding the referendum and ends 24 hours before the referendum will be held. By an order of Mayor of Stara Zagora Zhivko Todorov has printed an informational sheet which contains the referendum question, brief information about the motives of the referendum, the time, place and conditions for its holding. There were noticed certain places for promotional materials and premises to conduct information and an educational campaign. These were five pensioners club, Trade Union House and Hall "Slavejkov" in the municipality. The halls of community centers were used in villages in the municipality of Stara Zagora .

The referendum

The question of the referendum was worded as follows:  "Should the central artillery technical testing firing ground Zmeyovo be closed down? ". Sections for voting count the same number as at the last parliamentary elections on May 12, 2013 - 202 sections in 51 settlements in the municipality of Stara Zagora. (

There were organized 18 polling stations in the territory of Stara Zagora for voters with disabilities, musculoskeletal or visually impaired. On the day of the special transportation for persons with disabilities was provided. There were registered 149,434 voters. The election day began at 7:00 am and ended at 20:00.
Civic participation and results

On 27 May the  Municipal Electoral Commission announced that the referendum is invalid. The reason for failure is low voter turnout, which according to final data is only 19.94% instead of at least 48%.

The valid ballots are 29,557. 28 008 citizens support the closure of the polygon and 1549 do not. These are the results of all 202 stations in 51 towns in Stara Zagora municipality. The number of invalid ballots is 87. According to law the local referendum on the same issue may be scheduled  not earlier than one year later.


First of all, it has to be noticed the low voter turnout. There are several reasons for this. First, most people didn’t know whether the referendum would be held. Media reports indicate that people had hear about the referendum primarily from neighbors or friends so the information campaign was apparently poor. It is ridiculous that the main informers have been members of the Electoral Commission like Mina Velitchkova who said that she personally was sharing flayers and posters about the referendum. There were almost no banners or messages for the referendum in the city. It has to be said that most of major political parties clearly distanced themselves from campaign maybe because of the recently held parliamentary elections.

 “Disputes about whether or not this referendum take place also affected the activity” -  thinks the proposalmaker - Nikolinka Gorova from VMRO. The several appeals in the court against the referendum misled and refused many local citizens to participate. According to Cveta Hristova of the NGO “For the right for clean air” an additional obstacle was the statement by the Ministry of Defense that it would not accept the results of the referendum because the issue was not local. According to Maria Dineva, councilor, president of the "Union of Stara Zagora" and co-sponsor of the proposal to hold a local referendum, absolutely all of the national media were saying to locals that their vote won’t have affect again because is issue of national security. And last the decision to separate the referendum from the parliamentary election, which took place a little earlier on 12 May 2013, also had an impact as well as the fact that the date of the referendum coincided with several holidays.

Text by Ivailo Georgiev, member of Democracy International. 

Sources (the link refers to the actual article):

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