The majority of the Bulgarian citizens are convinced that their fundamental political and civil rights are protected and they may freely exercise them within the existing democratic structure of the country. But they are dissatisfied with the way the democratic institutions function and the way the laws are written and enforced. Considerable parts of the population remain isolated from the civic life. They neither participate in the decision-making processes, nor feel represented in the bodies of the local and central authorities.
This may lead to erosion of the public trust in democracy as the best form of state government in Bulgaria.These are the results of the national representative survey carried by Open Society Institute – Sofia in 2016. The survey that is conducted for a second year studies the public attitudes towards the fundamental constitutional values – democracy, rule of law and protection of the fundamental human rights, which at the same time are principal values of the EU member states, and it aims to establish the specific challenges to the democratic development of the country.
According to the survey, in 2016 49% of the adult Bulgarians think that democracy is the best form of government for Bulgaria. The opposite opinion is expressed by 29% of the respondents while about 22% remain undecided. There is almost no public support for the reproduction of foreign models of government that are not compatible with the values of liberal democracy. According to the respondents, the best governed countries, which should serve as an example to Bulgaria, are Germany, Great Britain and Switzerland. For a second year the majority of citizens (28%) specify Germany as an example of good governance. Great Britain and Switzerland are ranked second and third and are supported by 13% and 12% of the respondents respectively.
The survey data confirm that the main achievement of the democratic reforms in Bulgaria is the belief of the majority of citizens that their fundamental political and civil rights are protected and may be freely exercised: three-quarters of the respondents (75%) think there will be no risk of losing their business/job if they join a trade union or run for an independent municipal councilor or MP; 70% are not afraid of repressions if they participate in protests against the government or publicly criticize government decisions; three-quarters of the respondents (74%) believe that in the next 12 months there is no risk of being imprisoned without charge or trial; 68% think there is no risk of police ride at their home without a court order; two-thirds (66%) believe there is no risk of becoming a victim of police violence.
Despite the confidence of the majority of citizens that their political and civil rights are protected, very few of them have practical experience with the exercise of these rights. The vast majority of respondents (80% in 2016) state they do not participate in any organized form of public life (political party, trade union, club or civil organization). Only 6% are members of political parties and trade unions and between 2% and 4% say they are members of a community center, NGO or professional/business organization.
The participation in civic initiatives is low: only 5% of the respondents say they have participated in NGO initiatives during last year; 6% of the citizens state they have submitted proposals to the state or municipal administration; 7% have taken part in protests; and 8% have worked as volunteers. In the past year 18% of the citizens have participated in signing of petitions. Making a donation to a charity campaign, as in 2015, is still the most widespread form of engagement in significant public initiatives, but only one in four citizens (26%) has been engaged in such initiatives.
The low participation of citizens in public life and decision-making process is partly determined by certain demographic factors: the poor, people with lower education degree and the elderly are less likely to report that they participate in organized public life. The discrimination and stagnation of the reforms for modernization of the administration and promotion of the rule of law are also crucial factors for the exclusion of large social groups from the decision making in the country.
The survey identifies several deeply rooted public attitudes that reflect the existing barriers to the active participation of the citizens in public life, as well as the existing risks, undermining the trust in democracy as the best form of government of the country:
- The majority of citizens express permanent distrust of the main institutions of representative democracy. More than 2/3 of the citizens say they do not trust the National Assembly and the political parties, and more than half of the respondents do not trust the government and the courts. From all the surveyed institutions only the European Union, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the army benefit from a public trust of around and more than 50%. According to the prevailing public attitudes, the organized crime exerts influence on the political parties in the country (according to 64% of the respondents) and the change of ruling parties does not lead to a significant change in the overall state policies (according to 62% of the respondents), which means that the citizens see no actual competition between the parties.
- The majority of citizens believe that the authorities fail to cope with the main problems in Bulgaria. According to the respondents, the main problems, that the country is faced to, are the poverty and unemployment (referred to as main problems by one-third and one-fifth of the respondents respectively), poor governance and corruption (stated by 16% and 15% of the respondents respectively). However, the citizens perceive the government as failing to cope precisely with these challenges: according to 89% of the respondents, the government is more or less failing to cope with the problem of poverty; according to 87%, the government is more or less failing to cope with corruption.
- The majority of citizens do not trust the model by which the national elites are formed. According to the prevailing public attitudes, the two most important factors for access to senior government positions are the good connections and the personal wealth of the applicants. Only between 10% and 20% of the respondents think that education, knowledge and skills of the applicants are important factors for access to a senior government position.
- The majority of citizens do not feel represented in the bodies of the local of central authorities: 58% of the respondents disagree with that statement that there is at least one MP who they trust and who defends their interests; 51% disagree with the statement that in their municipality there is an least one municipal councilor who they trust and who defends their interests.
- The majority of citizens do not feel equal before the law and do not consider the laws of the country to be fair: 78% of the respondents disagree with the statement that the laws in the country apply equally to all; 67% disagree with the statement that the laws are clear and comprehensible; 55% do not agree that the laws of the country are fair. Less than one-third of the respondents agree that the government is acting within the law, and only 37% believe that courts are able to prevent the government from violating the law.
- Various forms of discrimination are still preventing the public activity of significant groups in the Bulgarian society and this problem has been exacerbating in the last year. Between 2015 and 2016 the percent of citizens who believe that the rights of minorities are protected decreased from 68% to 60%. Distinct discriminatory attitudes are still dominant in the country and they are targeted mainly to Roma people, ethnic Turks and representatives of the LGBT community. Other things being equal, the vast majority (72%) of the respondents would not vote for a presidential candidate who is a Bulgarian citizen of Roma origin; 70% would not vote for a presidential candidate who is a Bulgarian citizen of Turk origin; 67% would not vote for a presidential candidate who is a gay/lesbian. The discriminatory attitudes affect mainly these three groups, but there are discriminatory attitudes of considerable significance also towards the elderly and towards people with disabilities – half of the respondents (49%) would not vote for a presidential candidate who is older than 65 years, and 43% would not vote for a presidential candidate who is a person with disability.
Despite the numerous factors, contributing to the exclusion of citizens from the public life and the decision making process, the comparison of the survey data from 2016 with similar survey data from 2002 and 2006 shows a weak positive trend: between 2002 and 2016 the share of citizens who do not participate in any organization has decreased from 85% to 80%, and the share of citizens who chose to remain passive witnesses of transgressions has decreased from one in three (36%) in 2006 to one in four (26%) in 2016. The share of citizens who while witnessing a transgression chose to file a complaint with the respective institutions has increased from one in three (32%) in 2006 to almost half of the respondents (45%) in 2016. The increase in civic activity, however, conflicts with the low trust of citizens in institutions and therefore there is a constant risk of vigilantism and periodic outbursts of civil disobedience. In 2016 41% of the respondents state they would sign a a petition in the case of poor governance; 30% would attend a rally or procession; 13% would start a riot; 5% would participate in an attack against the parliament.
The data survey show that, according to significant groups in the Bulgarian society, the accountable and efficient governance, which is considered to be the main benefit of democracy, has not been established yet. Without result-oriented reforms for promoting civic participation and increasing the trust in the rule of law and the institutions of representative democracy, there is an increasing risk of erosion of the willingness of citizens to defend their democratic rights and freedoms and of reducing the public support for democracy as the best form of government for the country.
About the survey:
The data are from a national representative survey carried out among the population over 18 years of age between April 22 and May 14, 2016 according to the face-to-face interview method by a standardized questionnaire. The respondents are selected by means of a two-stage probability cluster sampling. Out of 1200 planned interviews 1197 were conducted. The maximum stochastic error is е ±2.9%.
The survey is carried out by Open Society Institute – Sofia and is funded by the Complementary actions Fund of the NGO Programme in Bulgaria under the European Economic Area Financial Mechanism 2009 – 2014. The sole responsibility for the content of this publication lies with the authors of the survey and under no circumstances may it be assumed that it reflects the official position of the donor countries and the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area.