Bulgarians voted yesterday 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 ouster by massive public unrest just three months ago, the conservative GERB party of former bodyguard ex-prime minister Boyko Borisov was tipped to win the most votes.
Eve-of-ballot polls however showed GERB attracting just 29 to 35 percent 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 to 32 percent, 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 MRF party and potential kingmaker DGB, a new centrist party formed by former 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 on Saturday.
Voter turnout is expected to be around 50 percent.
Voters’ dim view of the system six years after joining the EU was exacerbated on 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 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to send its biggest monitoring mission to Bulgaria since 1990.
Five parties — but not GERB — have also commissioned an independent vote count and analysts fear 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,” said Stefka Popova, a retired metallurgy worker forced to supplement her meager pension by selling newspapers.
“It’s not enough that they give me a monthly pension of 160 leva [US$106], but now they thought they could give me a ballot that’s already filled in. How dare they,” retired economist Stefka Georgieva, 60, said after casting a ballot for the Socialists. “I have no words to express my disgust. I don’t think anything like this has ever happened in a EU state.”
“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,” said her friend, teacher Svetla Krasteva.
“I voted for GERB. I don’t think they did enough for people, for mothers like me, but I don’t think anyone else can do better. It’s always been all talk and no deeds, you know,” Gergana, 27, said pushing her toddler in a pram.
A hung parliament or fresh elections is also the last thing the Bulgarian economy needs, with growth of only 0.8 percent last year and badly needed foreign investment falling sharply.
The first partial official results were not expected until this morning.