BULGARIA IS VOTING in a tight and tense snap general election marred by accusations of fraud and expected to result in political stalemate and fresh protests in the EU’s poorest member.
Despite its ousting by massive public unrest just three months ago, the conservative GERB party of former bodyguard ex-premier Boyko Borisov is tipped to win the most votes.
Eve-of-ballot polls however showed GERB pulling just 29-35 per cent support, suggesting a slim win that would bring them nowhere near a governing majority.
The socialist BSP party was also snapping at GERB’s heels on 25-32 per cent, with some surveys putting them neck-and-neck.
Whichever party comes first will face the tough task of finding at least two coalition partners in a severely fragmented parliament that might include up to five other parties.
These could include the ultra-nationalst Ataka party, the Turkish minority party MRF and potential kingmaker DGB, a new centrist party formed by ex-European commissioner Meglena Kuneva.
The campaign has focused more on a wiretapping scandal than on the grinding poverty — almost a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line — that so angered Bulgarians over the winter.
Six people have died after setting themselves on fire in protest or despair.
The failure by politicians to address ordinary Bulgarians’ top concern has added to apathy among the country’s 6.9 million voters, and to predictions that people will be out on the streets again before too long.
“We are also headed for fresh social protests,” Gallup analyst Zhivko Georgiev told state BNT television late Saturday. Voter turnout is expected to be around 50 percent.
Voters’ dim view of the system six years after joining the EU was exacerbated Saturday with the discovery of 350,000 illegal ballot papers at a printing firm whose owner is reportedly close to GERB.
The head of the socialists accused Borisov’s party of preparing for the “total falsification of the elections.”
Worries about election irregularities in the former communist country had already prompted the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to send its biggest monitoring mission to Bulgaria since 1990.
Independent vote count
Five parties — but not GERB — have also commissioned an independent vote count, analysts fears that the election result may be challenged for the first time since the country’s first post-communist election 23 years ago.
“I won’t vote. They’ve lost all respect for their own people,” fumed Stefka Popova, a retired metallurgy worker forced to supplement her meagre pension by selling newspapers.
“I have no words to express my disgust. I don’t think anything like this has ever happened in a EU state,” said retired economist Stefka Georgieva, 60, after casting ballot for the Socialists.
“People should understand that BSP is the only truly social party, all the rest work for the rich only. As to GERB — there never were bigger liars in this country than them,” her friend, teacher Svetla Krasteva, added.
A hung parliament or fresh elections is also the last thing the Bulgarian economy needs, with growth of only 0.8 per cent last year and badly needed foreign investment falling sharply.
Exit polls were expected around 8:00 pm (5pm GMT) when the more than 11,700 polling stations close, with the first partial official results not expected until Monday morning.