Participation of Bulgarian Roma in the 2001 general elections and prospects for political representation

07 November 2001

Andrei Iliev1

In June 2001, Bulgaria held its fifth general elections since the fall of communism2; The composition of the present parliament, which includes just two Romani Members of Parliament, promises yet another period in which Roma will be politically excluded. A look back at the history of the preceding 11 years discloses a pattern of under-representation of Roma: one Romani MP in the Grand National Assembly (1990); one Rom in the 37th National Assembly (1994-1997); and one Rom in the 38th National Assembly (1997-2001).

Judging by their final results, the last general elections did not make any difference with regard to Romani participation in the Bulgarian Parliament. Nevertheless, from the perspective of the Romani movement, these elections marked a change: For the first time, Romani political parties stood in the elections in a variety of political configurations3; In this article, I will outline strategies for the participation of Roma that emerged from the latest elections and will sum up the lessons for the future of the Romani political movement. My analysis will be from the perspective of a person who had the privilege of being both an insider and an outsider to the political processes immediately preceding the 2001 elections. In 2000, I was one among ten young Roma in Bulgaria who finished the Roma Political Leadership Training Program supported by the Open Society Institute (Budapest)4; The goal of this programme was to teach prospective Romani politicians the essentials of political theory and practice, and to prepare them for participation in political life. In the first part of the programme, we had the opportunity to meet international Romani leaders and to discuss with them the prospects for Romani representation at the international level. We were also introduced to international organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe and the European Union. We learned about opportunities for advocating the Romani cause at the international level, as well as how to use international organisations to put pressure on domestic governments. Following three months of academic training, we were given the opportunity to be interns in the mainstream political parties in Bulgaria. In light of the forthcoming elections in 2001, the main issue we discussed during the training was how to participate effectively in the elections. Our deliberations resulted in the establishment of the Society for Co-ordination and Co-operation, an organisation aiming to mediate between the various Romani parties and organisations in Bulgaria and assist them in building a coalition, as well as in promoting the election of a larger number of Roma through the majority parties. The creation of our organisation coincided with the commencement of negotiations between the various political actors, including Romani political actors in the run-up to the national election.

The first result of these negotiations was the involvement of two Romani organisations - the Confederation of Roma "Europe" and the Association of Romani Foundations - in the coalition lead by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). Until the elections in 2001, the majority of Bulgarian Roma traditionally supported the BSP. Misuse of the loyalty of the Romani electorate in the past ten years gave rise to a number of unprincipled partnerships between Socialist leaders and leaders of Romani organisations, the effect of which was to preclude the meaningful participation of Roma in the Bulgarian Parliament. Although several Roma found their way into parliament with the support of the BSP, real Romani representation is today still lacking in Parliament. The quantitative aspect of this issue (the fact that a minority which constitutes possibly up to 10 percent of the general population had only one or two representatives) posed the least serious problem. A more serious problem was the fact that the Romani MPs were treated as mere spokespersons of the BSP and not as factors in the formation of the party's politics towards Roma.

The 2001 partnership agreement between the BSP and the Romani organisations did not diverge from the established model in its vagueness with respect to the status of the Romani organisations in the coalition and the commitments of the BSP, beyond the election of one or two Romani MPs. The first indication that nothing had changed in the approach of the Socialists toward their Romani partners came with the inexplicable expulsion of Confederation of Roma "Europe" from the Socialist coalition prior to the elections. The final result - the election of just one Romani MP - only reaffirmed the status quo in relations between the Socialist party and the Romani organisations.

While the Socialist Party has built the image of a patron of the Romani community (both for its ideology of social justice and for the affiliation of many Roma with the party), the centre-right Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), the coalition which governed Bulgaria from April 1997 to June 2001, has been notorious for disregarding Roma as possible partners during elections. Faced with the apathy of the UDF leaders on the issue of negotiating with Romani parties and individuals, several leaders of Romani parties believed loyal to the UDF eventually gave up the hope that a coalition with the UDF would ever materialise, and opted for a coalition amongst themselves. With the active intervention of the newly established Society for Co-ordination and Co-operation, which convened several discussions amongst potential participants in a Romani coalition, several organisations and parties eventually formed a coalition5;

While the idea of a Romani coalition was recognised by many Romani activists as the most viable option for Romani participation in the elections, the Romani coalition failed ultimately to win support from the vast majority of the Romani electorate. Several factors contributed to that end. First, the sweeping support for the National Movement "Simeon II", which cut across all layers of the Bulgarian electorate, severely diminished the chances for success of small parties, be they of the majority or the minority. Secondly, as compared to the other participants in the election campaign, the Romani coalition had few resources, and this posed a serious obstacle to carrying out an effective electoral campaign. It was not able to form structures throughout the country or to launch a major media campaign. Moreover, most of the participants in the coalition did not have political skills or experience in election campaigns. Last but not least, the coalition was dominated by Romani businessmen, and it was suspected by many that the goal of their political aspirations was the promotion of their own business interests.

A third strategy for Romani participation in the elections evolved through the coalition of the ethnic minorities in Bulgaria, centred around the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), the political party which by its composition and actions de facto represents ethnic Turks in Bulgaria. Evroroma, an important Romani organisation in Bulgaria, entered the coalition led by the MRF. MRF placed a number of Romani representatives on its ticket, all of them, however, at unelectably low positions. As a result, the MRF failed to ensure the election of a single Romani candidate in the 2001 elections. Moreover, it has repeatedly failed to elect Roma over its ten-year participation in parliamentary politics, despite its proclaimed goal of promotion of the rights of ethnic minorities (including Roma) and despite the fact that many Muslim Roma in Bulgaria regularly vote for the MRF. The latest elections have thus finally dispelled any expectation that the domestically-touted "Bulgarian ethnic model" would include, apart from Turks, Roma6; Further proof of this conclusion is to be found in the post-election period, during which the MRF became a coalition partner of the winner in the elections - the National Movement "Simeon II", which together with it formed the present government. The MRF not only failed to propose a single Romani person for a position in the administration, but it also gradually forgot that it used to be in coalition with a Romani party and dropped the name of the party from the official title of the coalition.

The National Movement "Simeon II" (NDSV) included a number of Roma on its ticket, and one of them was ultimately elected to parliament. During the election campaign, the party's leader and ex-Bulgarian monarch Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, paid several visits to Romani neighbourhoods in the country. He highlighted the pressing need to involve Roma in public affairs and, in addition, promised to establish a state institution, lead by a Romani person, to address the problems of the Romani community. Since the elections, however, the National Movement's leaders have not yet, as I write these words in late September 2001, presented a clear concept for their actions with regard to Romani problems, or given substance to their commitments prior to the elections.

The election campaign from June 2001 offers rich material for analysis. A couple of conclusions merit our attention as they are significant for the prospects of Romani participation in political life:

  1. The model of election of Romani MPs through the mainstream political parties as applied in the past ten years in Bulgaria precludes adequate representation of Roma. The deal between individuals who do not effectively represent large portions of the Romani community and a mainstream party subordinates Romani interests to the partisan interests of the respective parties. Once elected, Romani politicians generally become mere symbols of Romani participation in politics, not true participants.
  2. Agreements between Romani organisations and mainstream parties, if they are to lead to the realisation of effective Romani participation in public life should, in the future, embody clear commitments on the part of the mainstream parties in the area of policies with respect to Roma. Although electing Roma to parliament is absolutely necessary, such agreements should not merely guarantee the election of one or two Roma to parliament, as they do presently.
  3. However challenging from the point of view of the most recent elections, a coalition of Romani parties is the most promising tool for promotion of Romani interests and the worthiest endeavour for Romani politicians in the future.


  1. Andrei Iliev is a fifth-year student in the Free University of Varna, Bulgaria, majoring in the History of Culture. He is chair of the Society for Co-ordination and Co-operation, an organisation established in 2001 by ten young Roma who finished the Roma Political Leadership Training Program of the Open Society Institute. Translation of, and editorial assistance with this article were provided by Savelina Danova-Russinova.
  2. After the June 2001 elections, the composition of the Bulgarian parliament includes the following parties and coalitions: National Movement "Simeon II" (42.74 percent of the vote); United Democratic Forces (18.18 percent of the vote); Coalition for Bulgaria, centered around the Bulgarian Socialist Party (17.15 percent of the vote); and Coalition "Movement for Rights and Freedoms, Evroroma and Liberal Union" (7.45 percent of the vote).
  3. Article 11(4) of the 1991 Bulgarian Constitution prohibits formation of political parties organised on an ethnic basis. A similar ban existed in the 1990 Law on Political Parties. This ban was applied in 1990 to prevent the Democratic Union "Roma" from re-registering as a political party in order to take part in the 1990 elections for Grand National Assembly (GNA). The prohibition was also applied with respect to the re-registration as a political party of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), a formation which de facto represents ethnic Turks in Bulgaria. A follow-up decision of the Bulgarian Central Electoral Commission, however, allowed the MRF to take part in the elections for GNA with its registration as a "movement". A motion by MPs from the Bulgarian Socialist Party in 1991/1992 to the Constitutional Court, asking it to declare the MRF unconstitutional, was unsuccessful and the legitimacy of the MRF was thus confirmed. In 1998-2001 several Romani parties circumvented the Constitutional ban and registered by choosing ethnically neutral names and avoiding reference to Roma in their statutes.
  4. In 2000 the Open Society Instituse's Roma Political Leadership Training Program (RPLP) was held in Bulgaria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. In 2001 the RPLP continued in the Czech Repubilc and Bulgaria.
  5. The Romani coalition included 12 Romani parties and organisations. It centered around the Romani parties "Free Bulgaria" and "Eighth of April". The party "Free Bulgaria" was founded in 1999 and took part in the local elections that year. The coalition received 0.6 percent of the vote in the 2001 general elections.
  6. The concept of "the Bulgarian ethnic model" was constructed by Bulgarian politicians and journalists in the period after the collapse of the totalitarian state in Bulgaria. In its broader implications, the concept refers to the democratic principles governing the treatment of ethnic minorities that superseded the assimilationist policies prevalent before 1989. In a narrower sense, the concept refers to the representation of ethnic minorities in political life. Theoretically, the concept is meant to encompass mechanisms for the representation of all ethnic minorities in Bulgaria. However, in its practical implications, it builds exclusively on the mechanism for representation of ethnic Turks through the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Bulgarian Roma, who are not represented by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms or by any other political organisation, are thus excluded from the "Bulgarian ethnic model".


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