Bulgarians vote for new parliament amid COVID-19 fears, anger over corruption

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Bulgarians vote for new parliament amid COVID-19 fears, anger over corruption

Bulgarians voted in a parliamentary election on Sunday that will decide whether long-serving Prime Minister Boyko Borissov wins a new four-year mandate despite persistent concerns about corruption in the European Union’s poorest member state.

Opinion polls suggest Borissov’s centre-right GERB will again be the largest party, with 28-29% of the vote, but will fall short of a majority and may struggle to build a stable coalition in a more fractured parliament. That could hamper Bulgaria’s ability to effectively tap the EU’s 750 billion euro ($884 billion) Recovery Fund to help rebuild the bloc’s economy after the coronavirus pandemic.

Borissov, 61, an ex-fireman in power almost without a break since 2009, sought to showcase his successes in modernising Bulgaria’s creaking infrastructure in low-key campaign after massive anti-graft rallies last summer dented his popularity. “We showed what we have achieved,” Borissov said after casting his ballot.

Polls will close at 8 p.m. (1700 GMT), with exit polls due shortly afterwards. Partial results are due through the night into Monday, before final official results expected on Thursday. More than 6.7 million Bulgarians are eligible to vote, but pollsters expect a low turnout because of voters’ concerns over COVID-19 and a slow vaccine rollout.

Borissov, who has came under fire over the rollout, thanked the European Commission for 1.3 million additional COVID-19 vaccine shots, which the country will receive in the second quarter. Bulgaria has seen coronavirus cases surging in March and now has the second highest coronavirus-related death rate, per million people on a 7 day rolling average, in the EU after Hungary, according to scientific online publication Our World in Data.

Although hospitals are full, the government eased some lockdown restrictions before the vote. CORRUPTION

Borissov’s government has presided over a 36% increase in the average monthly salary to 1,468 levs ($882), has kept public debt low, and secured entry to the “waiting room” for joining the euro currency. But its failure to tackle endemic corruption and reform the judiciary brought thousands of protesters onto the streets for months during 2020.

The protesters accused Borissov of cosying up to local oligarchs and funnelling EU aid to businesses close to GERB, allegations which he denies. Bulgaria ranks as the EU’s most corrupt member state according to Transparency International. A recent U.S. State Department report on human rights highlights serious problems with judicial independence and media freedom in the country.

President Rumen Radev, a critic of Borissov, says Bulgaria needs new faces and ideas. “These election will be the first step to the return to normality, to laws and rules,” he said after voting.

The main opposition Socialists campaigned on restoring trust in state institutions and reducing poverty, but have been hampered by internal squabbles and are expected to win 20-22% of the vote. An anti-elite party led by TV host Slavi Trifonov looks set to finish third with 13%. Trifonov says he opposes any coalition with mainstream parties, raising the spectre of a deadlocked parliament if his party performs well.

It is closely followed by the ethnic Turkish MRF party. Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up! Mafia Out!, boosted by the protests, are also expected to win seats. GERB’s coalition partner, the nationalist VMRO party, is close to the 4% threshold, polls show. ($1 = 1.6628 leva)

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