Bulgaria is a parliamentary democracy in which the prime minister occupies the most powerful executive position. The locus of government power is the central government, on which local authorities depend heavily and which names the governors of Bulgaria’s regions. The current constitution was ratified in 1991.
The president, who is chief of state and commander in chief of the armed forces, has limited domestic powers. The president and vice president are elected every five years by direct popular vote and can be reelected once. The president cannot initiate legislation but may return a bill to parliament for further discussion. Parliament, in turn, can overturn such a veto by a simple majority vote. The president appoints the chairmen of the top two national courts, the Supreme Court of Cassation and the Supreme Administrative Court, as well as the state’s top legal representative, the chief prosecutor.
The prime minister, who is head of government, is nominally selected by the president and approved by the National Assembly (Narodno Subraniye, parliament). Normally, the selectee as prime minister is the leader of the party receiving the most votes in parliamentary elections. The prime minister nominates a Council of Ministers (cabinet), which must be approved by a majority of the National Assembly. In 2006 Bulgaria’s Council of Ministers included 17 ministers, three deputy prime ministers, and the chairman of the Bulgarian National Bank. The council is responsible for managing the state budget, carrying out state policy, and maintaining law and order. Council members usually come from the majority or plurality party in parliament. In 2006 three ministers were ethnic Turks, and three were women.
The unicameral National Assembly, or Narodno Subranie, consists of 240 deputies who are elected by direct popular vote for 4-year terms through a mixed electoral system: 209 members of parliament (MPs) elected according to the classic proportional representation system (voters vote for fixed, rank-ordered party lists for each of the 31 electoral districts, with a different list for each district), and 31 majority MPs elected individually under the majority representation system in each and every district (the winning candidate receives a plurality of the votes in the region).
Party representation is proportional to votes gained, but a party must gain at least 4 percent of the popular vote to achieve representation. Until 2005 no more than five parties had been represented in the National Assembly, but seven parties hold seats in the current parliament. The assembly enacts laws, schedules presidential elections, approves prime ministers and cabinet members, ratifies international treaties and agreements, and declares war. A president’s refusal to sign legislation can be overcome by a simple majority vote. In the 2005 elections, 53 women were elected members of the National Assembly.
A 1-month official campaign period precedes general elections. The voting age is 18. Preliminary results are available within hours of poll closings. Parties and coalitions must win a minimum 4% of the national vote to enter parliament. Seats are then allocated to the parties in proportion to the distribution of votes in their respective electoral districts. Votes belonging to parties not passing the 4% threshold are distributed to other parties using the method of the smallest remainder. The lists of newly elected members of parliament are announced 7 days after the elections. The president must convene the new parliament within 1 month after the elections, and calls upon parties, coalitions, or political groups to nominate a prime minister and form a government. If the three largest parties, coalitions, or political groups fail to nominate a prime minister, the president can dissolve parliament and schedule new elections. In recent years, it has taken approximately a month for the new government to form.
Parliament selects and dismisses government ministers, including the prime minister, exercises control over the government, and sanctions deployment of troops abroad. It is responsible for enactment of laws, approval of the budget, scheduling of presidential elections, declaration of war, and ratification of international treaties and agreements.
The administration of justice in Bulgaria is based on three instances and the courts administer civil, criminal and administrative cases. The governing law is the Judicial System Act, which sets out the structure and operating principles of the judicial bodies and governs their interaction with each other and with the legislative and executive bodies.
After becoming a separate branch in 1991, Bulgaria’s judiciary reformed slowly. The first major reform was the 1994 Judicial Powers Act, which defined the powers of the branch. Further refinements came in a series of constitutional amendments in 2003. The Supreme Administrative Court and Supreme Court of Cassation, the highest courts of appeal, rule on the application of laws in lower courts.
The Constitutional Court of 12 judges serving nine-year terms interprets the constitutionality of laws and treaties. It can rescind laws that it judges unconstitutional. Members of that court, which is separate from the rest of the judicial system, are selected in equal numbers by the president, the National Assembly, and members of the supreme courts.
The Supreme Judicial Council manages the system and appoints judges. The 25 members of that council serve five-year terms. Members are ex-officio government officials selected by the National Assembly and members of the judicial system. Judges in Bulgaria are appointed, promoted and demoted, transferred and relieved of office by decision of the Supreme Judicial Council. Subject to a positive comprehensive appraisal of their performance, judges acquire tenure by decision of the Supreme Judicial Council after five years in office.
Following extensive debate it was concluded in spring 2015 that some of the proposed changes necessitated amendments to the Constitution. Such amendments were adopted by the National Assembly in December 2015. While these amendments included some significant changes from the text originally proposed by the government, their adoption still represented an important step towards a reform of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC).
The Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) is the key institution governing the Bulgarian judiciary. It has wide-ranging powers over the appointment, appraisal, promotion, and disciplining of judges and prosecutors, as well as managing the budget of the judiciary. It also acts as the voice of the judiciary towards society and therefore has a central role in shaping public attitudes towards the judiciary as a whole. Public confidence in the judiciary remains low.
In December 2015 Bulgaria amended its Constitution. While the amendments included some significant changes from the text originally proposed, their adoption still represented an important step towards a reform of the Supreme Judicial Council, which provides the overall direction for the Bulgarian judicial system. This needed to be followed up, so that the full range of measures planned in the judicial reform strategy becomes law.
Bulgaria is divided into 28 regions (oblasti) and the region surrounding the capital city, which is a separate jurisdiction. At the local level, there are 262 municipalities. Regional governors are named by the national Council of Ministers, providing for a highly centralized state. Municipalities are run by mayors, who are elected to four-year terms, and by municipal councils, which are directly elected legislative bodies. Subnational jurisdictions are heavily dependent on the central government for funding; plans call for decentralization, which would expand the power of those jurisdictions.
The judicial system below the national level includes regional, district, and appellate courts; military courts also exist, separate from the military, at the district and appellate levels. Court cases may have as many as three stages: first instance, appeal, and cassation. The legal system, which guarantees public trial and legal representation, has suffered from backlogs that abridge the rights of some accused individuals. A new code of criminal procedure, adopted in October 2005, redistributed the responsibilities of police and investigatory agencies and simplified the judicial system. This was the latest in a series of judicial reforms aimed at meeting European Union requirements. The prosecutors’ offices are in a centralized hierarchy, parallel to the court structure and run by the chief prosecutor, who is appointed by the president. In 2006 the judiciary retained its long-standing reputation for corruption.
Bulgaria has universal suffrage for citizens 18 years of age and older. Elections are supervised by an independent Central Election Commission that includes members from all major political parties. Parties must register with the commission prior to participating in a national election. Parliamentary elections were held in June 2005, and the next presidential election is scheduled for October 2006. Both of those dates comply with the term stipulations of four years for members of parliament and five years for the president and vice president. New, standardized election procedures were introduced for the June 2005 elections. Local elections are held every four years; those held in 2003 were widely considered free and fair. The parliamentary elections of 2005 yielded an unusual fragmentation of votes in which no party gained more than 31 percent, and seven parties gained at least 5 percent. The minimum for a party to seat delegates in parliament is 4 percent.
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