Yes/No: just answer the question – but please don’t mention Belene

helene nap

Yes/No? – not such a clear-cut answer.

I’ve been struggling for a while with drafting a post on one of the developing hot topics in Bulgarian politics and society. It’s been difficult to absorb and understand all the local machinations and the possible motives behind them as they develop on almost a daily basis, while putting the entire question in a larger, more long-term perspective for the whole of the country.

Mercifully, a professional journalist – Andrew MacDowall – has solved my problem, by setting out the broader story (and some of the undoubted short-term, internal political games) in the UK’s Financial Times.[1]

The interminable background to this ambitious / out-dated project is there. This year’s socialist opposition motivation of a popular petition in reaction to their perceived (and real) vacillation by the present majority party (GERB) is reported. The most recent reactions of parliamentarians are noted, with some suggested motivations.

Popular petition provokes populist referendum

The petition succeeded in provoking the holding of a national referendum which, by all accounts, may be held within 3 months. Parliament has the constitutional power to amend the wording of any original question in such a petition, and has exercised its prerogative to do this: the referendum question (very cunningly) drops all specific reference to the Belene nuclear power plant (“unconstitutional, according to Article 42” of the Bulgarian Constitution – a baffling reason for me, after checking the official English translation).

This undoubtedly sows confusion about what the petitioners signed up to, and the future policies of the present government – particularly if it gets re-elected next year.

If you want a quick, intensive and perceptive insight to this referendum and the wide-ranging questions it raises among politicians, interested parties and lobbies, and (dare I mention it) the electorate, this is the article for you.

Some observations

Achieving a clear, accurate question to which voters can unequivocally answer Yes or No, is a fraught and, perhaps, perverted process – technically, constitutionally, politically.

The consequent emotive discussion surrounding a referendum tends to mask all objective and rational discussion of the reason behind it.

For example, I’ve seen no cogent explanation of why Bulgaria may need a new nuclear power plant (wherever it may be situated within its territory), and what benefits the Bulgarian citizen may reasonably expect (except for political promises of  “cheap electricity” – that depends on how you present the figures).

According to one recent statement by PM Borisov, Bulgaria already has enough electricity – but he has a tendency towards making wild, uninformed,ignorant, impromptu pronouncements on all kinds of subjects. Mind you, he’s also repeatedly said that the country just can’t afford the costs of construction and commissioning such a plant. Not much help from him, then!

The opposition socialists, on the other hand, have ‘made hay’ in galvanising over 500,000 signatures for their own, specific question that named Belene, probably hoping to erase their own lamentable record in advancing this leviathan project that goes all the way back to the 1970s. (What’s the active life of a nuclear power plant, these days  – as much as 40 years?)

One of the significant players ‘in the shadows’ of all this, is Russia. The general and energy-based relationship between Bulgaria and the Kremlin is murky, ill-defined, over-reliant (on Bulgaria’s part), and never sufficiently clarified to the public.

The EU, meanwhile, has been very quiet about this business. A reminder – one of the pre-conditions of Bulgaria’s accession to the “mighty 27” was that it decommissioned 4 of the 6 existing units at Kozloduy, built to the same basic design as the ill-fated Chernobyl plant.

So, here’s a (reasonable) translation of the referendum question to be put to an apparently largely uninformed, and definitely politicised, Bulgarian electorate:

Should Bulgaria develop nuclear energy through the construction of a new nuclear power plant?

Seems an OK question on the surface, doesn’t it? Well, doesn’t it?

And for the referendum to  succeed, 60% of the electorate (a technicality based on turnout at previous elections) need to turn up with a pen on the allotted day –  about 4.25 million out of a population of 7.3 million.

We’ll see who wins…

[1]: Financial Times

Image source: Reuters

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