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Democracy and Civic Participation. Public Attitudes – May 2015

 

May 2015

 

The majority of the Bulgarian citizens are convinced democracy is the best form of state government for Bulgaria, but are dissatisfied with the way the democratic institutions function and with the way the laws are written and enforced. Huge groups of the population remain isolated from social life; they neither participate in the decision-making processes, nor feel represented in the bodies of the local and central authorities. These are the results from the new national representative survey carried out by Open Society Institute – Sofia in the period March-April 2015. The survey aims to establish the public attitudes in Bulgaria towards the main values of the European Union, such as democracy, the rule of law and basic civil rights, as well as the challenges of putting them into practice. The survey was presented at the conference "Democracy and Civil Participation. The Role of the Non-governmental Organizations" organized within the Third Annual Meeting for Sharing Good Practice on Partnership Development within the NGO Programme in Bulgaria under the EEA Financial Mechanism.

According to the survey 52% of the citizens aged 18+ are of the opinion that democracy is the best form of government for Bulgaria. The respondents sharing this opinion are the majority among the supporters of all political parties with the exception of the Bulgarian Socialist Party. In the country there is almost no public support for the reproduction of foreign models of government which are not compatible with the values of liberal democracy. According to the majority of the Bulgarian citizens the best governed countries, which should serve as an example to Bulgaria, are Germany (indicated by 40% of the respondents), Switzerland (14%) and Great Britain (14%). Only 6% of the respondents give Russia as an example, and 2% - China.

One of the achievements of the democratic government of Bulgaria is the confidence of the overwhelming majority of the citizens that they can freely enjoy their civil rights. Approximately 2/3 of the respondents think there is no risk of losing their job or becoming a victim of random violence if they publicly criticize government decisions or participate in protests against the government. Almost 80% of the respondents believe there is no risk of losing their job or becoming a victim of arbitrary violence if they express their religious affiliation openly and publicly or speak a language different from Bulgarian in public. More than 70% of the respondents think there will be no negative consequences for them if they join a trade union at their place of work. These data show that the freedom of speech and association are recognized by the majority of the citizens as truly guaranteed.

However, there are also considerable groups of citizens who think they might become victims of arbitrary actions on the part of the law enforcement bodies and suffer adverse consequences as a result of their participation in public life and we may assume that these apprehensions influence the way they exercise their civil rights. One in four respondents thinks their phone may be tapped by the police in the following year, one in five considers it likely that their home be raided by the police without a court order or that they become a victim of police violence, and one in ten – that they may be put in jail without charge or trial.

There is a concentration of similar attitudes among certain groups of citizens. The fear of tapping is most evident in Sofia, where 42% of the respondents think their phone may be tapped by the police compared to 28% on average for the country. The fear of dismissal because of a public expression of critical attitude towards the government is stronger among the civil servants and those who define themselves as Roma. 35% of those employed in the civil service express such apprehensions in comparison to 22% on average for the country and 18% among those employed in the private sector.

The widespread discriminatory attitudes are an additional factor for the exclusion of wide social groups from political life. Other things being equal, 70% of the respondents would not vote for a candidate for mayor who is Roma, 66% would not vote for a candidate for mayor who is gay or lesbian, 62% would not vote for a candidate for mayor who is a Bulgarian citizen of Turkish origin. More than half of the respondents would not vote for a person who is too young or too old, and 1/3 would not vote for a disabled person. At first sight women are not an object of discrimination – on average for the country 80% of the respondents say that, all things being equal, they would vote for a woman-candidate for mayor, but this support is 12% weaker among the respondents who determine themselves as Turks and 30% weaker among the respondents who determine themselves as Roma.

The existing discriminatory attitudes, the obstacles to the participation of big groups of citizens in public life and the still lacking sufficient guarantees for the rule of law stand out as the main challenges for democracy in the country.

The vast majority of the people (80%) do not participate in any organized form of public life. Less than 8% of the respondents say they are members of a political party, 7% say they are members of a trade union, and below 5% - of a NGO, community center or a sports club. One in three people say they will not do anything if they are discontented with the way the country is governed. The non-participation problem is especially acute among those who live in villages, the elderly, those with low education degree and the unemployed.

The majority of the citizens do not feel represented in the bodies of the central and local authorities. 54% of the respondents say they cannot name a single Member of Parliament who they trust or who defends their interests. Only 24% of the respondents can indicate such a MP, and 22% hesitate. The situation with the local authorities is similar. 46% of the respondents cannot name a single municipal councilor who they trust or who defends their interests. Only 32% of the citizens can indicate at least one municipal councilor they trust, and 22% are undecided.

Most of the voters think the opinion of the members of the political parties is not at all the main factor determining the policy of the parties. According to the majority of the respondents (52%) the party leaders have the biggest influence when determining party policies, whereas only 23% think the ordinary party members have similar influence. 38% claim the business representatives have big or very big influence on the party management. What is alarming is that 67% of the respondents are convinced that organized crime has big or very big influence on some of the main parties in the country.

The rule of law and the quality of regulations remain some of the most serious unsolved problems of Bulgarian society. 77% of the respondents do not agree with the claim that the laws in Bulgaria apply equally to everyone, 69% do not agree with the statement that the laws are clear and comprehensible, and 58% do not agree that the laws are just. More than one third of the people do not agree that the courts are able prevent the government from breaking the law, and 42% think that if they have to resort to the court, they would rather or would certainly not have a fair trail.

The results from the survey indicate for the need of prioritization of such public policies which can simultaneously solve the problems with the citizens’ (non-) participation and with the rule of law and the improvement of the quality of regulations. These policies may be oriented towards:
 
  1. Setting up a free and publicly accessible database with the complete texts of the applicable legislation;
  2. Improving the accountability of the central and local authorities – there is a considerable public support for the idea of the different ministries preparing and submitting annual reports to the National Assembly, which shall not only comment on implementation of the budget, but also on the results of their work in terms of different public policies;
  3. Establishing mechanisms for including the citizens in the decision-making process at the central and local level – publication and public discussion of the reports of the central and local authorities and of the draft - bills. At the moment a considerable part of the legislative acts of the National Assembly are based on draft laws proposed by individual MPs, which as a rule are neither subject to public discussions, nor to regulatory impact assessment ; furthermore, although the Rules of Organization and Procedure of the National Assembly provide for mechanisms for civic participation in the legislative process, in practice they are useless since the leading committees can approve bills 24 hours after their submission and law amendments can be voted by the Parliament as soon as 2 days after being proposed;
  4. Expanding the civic education programmes at schools.
The data come from a national representative survey carried out among the population aged 18+ between March 21 and April 9, 2015 according to the face-to-face interview method by a standardized questionnaire. The respondents are selected by means of a two-tier cluster sample. Of 1200 planned interviews 1178 were conducted. The maximum standard error is ±2,9%. The survey was funded within the State of Democracy project of the Legal Program of Open Society Institute – Sofia.
©2009 Open Society Institute - Sofia