SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) – Bulgarians voted in a parliamentary election Sunday, hoping that a new government will end the country’s political stalemate, revive its flagging economy, solve a severe banking crisis and find ways to ease Moscow’s grip on its energy supplies.
Opinion surveys have predicted the biggest vote winner will be the centre-right GERB party led by a former prime minister, Boyko Borisov, but say it’s expected to fall short of a majority.
The 55-year-old could face an uphill battle trying to build a coalition government.
Bulgaria belongs to NATO and the 28-nation European Union (EU) but many residents feel a strong kinship to Russia, and the country’s extensive dependence on Russian oil and gas leaves it vulnerable to political meddling by the Kremlin.
The Central Election Commission announced a voter turnout of 7.8 per cent at 11am, lower than in previous elections.
Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev urged his countrymen to go to the polls as “these elections will determine Bulgaria’s future for many years”.
The nation of 7.3 million – the poorest in the EU – is struggling with corruption and a widespread disillusionment with the governing elite.
A weak economic recovery is now also threatened by a Russian ban on European food imports and a major crisis in the country’s fourth largest bank.
There are also fears that Bulgaria could suffer even more if the dispute between the West and Russia over Ukraine goes through the winter.
For anti-monopoly reasons, the EU has pressured Bulgaria to withdraw from the South Stream pipeline project and the work has stalled.
South Stream aims to transport gas from Russia through the Black Sea to Bulgaria and then to other European countries, bypassing Ukraine’s pipelines.
Borisov says he would only continue building South Stream if the EU approved – in sharp contrast with the Socialists, who want the project at any price.
Many Bulgarians back the pipeline, eager for the jobs they hope it will bring.