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Crime And Crisis Focus Of Bulgarian Election

Campaign posters in Sofia ahead of the July 5 national elections
SOFIA (Reuters) -- Bulgarians have been voting in a parliamentary election they hope will restart reforms to combat endemic corruption and heal an economy severely damaged by the global crisis.

Opinion polls show the Socialist party that leads Sofia's current coalition government will bear the brunt of voter anger over a recession and a climate of impunity for crime bosses that has cost Bulgaria millions of euros in aid.

Last year Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007 and is now the bloc's poorest member, lost access to some of its EU funds as punishment for failing to deal with graft.

If opinion polls prove correct, the centrist opposition party of Sofia Mayor Boiko Borisov, GERB, will get a shot at forming government, most likely another coalition.

Borisov has promised to attack crime quickly, but observers are cautious because of his limited track record and concerns his ability to introduce reforms may be watered down in any coalition talks.

His party now garners roughly 30 percent of the vote, pollsters say, against 20 percent held by the ruling Socialists.

"I am fed with the government," said former teacher Pepa Kozhuharova, 64, as she cast her vote in a Sofia neighborhood. "This country badly needs change. We have to show we don't want corrupt politicians anymore."

A new government will have to move fast to ensure Brussels imposes no new sanctions on aid, badly needed to fund Bulgaria's cash-strapped economy, and to attract investors, many of whom fled the Balkan nation this year.

"If we want to continue receiving sanctions, vote for the ruling coalition on [July 5]," Borisov said at a campaign rally. "Voting for us will give you the solidarity of Europe."

Slipshod Reforms

The current government took Bulgaria's 7.6 million people into the EU, lowered taxes and maintained tight fiscal policies. But critics accuse it of incompetence and of lacking the political will to sever links between politicians, the judiciary and crime chiefs.

Underscoring the depth of the problem, prosecutors have launched investigations into widespread allegations of vote-buying by virtually all parties before the ballot, and on July 4 at least five people were arrested.

In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev called on Bulgarians not to sell their votes and warned parties and vote buyers they would be punished if found guilty.

"These disgusting practices inflict terrible scars on our democracy. But the most scary thing is that in return for a pathetically small amount of money, you put your own future and that of your children and families at stake," Stanishev said.

The election comes at a crucial time. Hit hard by the global financial crisis, the economy is in recession after 12 years of growth and this has sparked several rounds of mass protests.

Rising unemployment is putting an end to years of voracious private spending that has raised living standards but also fueled a mountain of debt.

Preventing a protracted contraction -- the economy is now seen shrinking by 2 percent in 2009 -- will be a key challenge for the next government. It will have to slash spending to shield Bulgaria's currency board regime and the peg to the euro.

Like some of its former Soviet bloc peers now in the EU, it will likely seek International Monetary Fund (IMF) aid, analysts say.

Voting started at 6 a.m. and was scheduled to end at 7 p.m. (4 p.m. UTC or GMT), with exit polls due shortly after close.

Turnout was expected at just over 50 percent, similar to four years ago.