Slightly over 60 % voted for a 2,000-megawatt plant at Belene on the Danube River, exit polls showed. Turnout was slightly above 20 %. For the referendum to be binding, a number of voters superior to the one in the last parliamentary election is required, that is, over 60 %.
The referendum was initiated by the opposition Socialist Party (BSP), which last year gathered 800,000 signatures in favour of holding a referendum for building a new nuclear power plant at Belene.
Under the Constitution, 500,000 valid signatures are needed to hold a referendum. The plebiscite on Belene was the first nationwide referendum in the country’s modern history.
The Socialists decision to hold the referendum was a response to the freezing of the construction at the Belene site last March. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov says the Belene plant would cost more than €10 billion, too high a sum for the struggling country. Some interpret Borissov’s move as an effort to reduce the country’s dependence on Russia for its energy.
Russia was expected to build the nuclear plant and supply the reactors.
According to opinion polls, the Socialists are the biggest power base among the supporters of nuclear energy in Bulgaria, who are estimated at 60 % of the population. Bulgaria’s first nuclear central at Kozloduy (see background), operational since 1974, is reputed for providing the cheapest power, as well as securing hard currency by exporting energy.
Vote in the cold
The ruling party GERB of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov was unable to stop the referendum from taking place, but it made sure it took place in January, the coldest month in Bulgaria, and removed the name ‘Belene’from the question, who read : “Should nuclear power in Bulgaria be developed trough the building of a new central ? ”.
In such conditions, the referendum was seen by many as a test of public support for the policies of Borissov ahead of the parliamentary elections in July.
The leader of BSP Sergei Stanishev, who is also President of the Party of European Socialists (PES), called the referendum “successful” and said it had been “a powerful impulse for changing the political status quo” in the country.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Tsvetan Tsvetanov, who is the number 2 in the GERB party, rejected the view that the referendum should be seen as a vote “for” or “against Boyko Borissov. He blamed the Socialists for having organised “the most expensive party sociology”, as in his words the referendum had cost 20 million leva, the equivalent of €10 million.
Borisov said that if the turnout is indeed above 20 %, enough for Belene to go before parliament, GERB will reject the project again. GERB indeed controls a majority which is able to reject any motion from the opposition. Moreover, the traditional Bulgarian centre-right force ‘Blue coalition’who has 14 out of 240MPs in Parliament, is staunchly opposed to Belene.
Another political player, the party ‘Bulgaria for citizens” of former Commissioner Meglena Kuneva, who according to polls may enter the next parliament, was strongly opposed to the referendum and had asked its supporters not to vote. But strangely enough, opinion polls reveled that most of Kuneva’s supporters also supported Belene.
According to opinion polls, BSP and GERB are neck-and-neck ahead of the July elections with about 20 % of public support each. The support of BSP appears to be increasing, while the support for GERB has been declining over what many see as a failure of the government to tackle the problems of corruption and improving the living standards of the population.