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Bulgarians Head To Polls For Fifth Vote In Two Years But End Of Political Gridlock Unlikely

A man votes during the parliamentary election in Sofia on April 2.
A man votes during the parliamentary election in Sofia on April 2.

Voters in Bulgaria head to the polls on April 2 in the country’s fifth parliamentary election in two years with opinion polls suggesting this latest vote will again fail to deliver a result that will break the political gridlock gripping the EU’s poorest nation -- and one of its most corrupt -- as war rages nearby in Ukraine.

More than 5,600 candidates representing 14 political parties and seven party coalitions are registered for the election to the 240-member National Assembly, Bulgaria’s single-chamber parliament. A party must secure at least 4 percent of ballots cast to secure seats in parliament.

Polls are due to open at 7 a.m. local time and close at 8 p.m. local time, with the first exit polls expected shortly thereafter. Analysts say turnout may be hindered by a spate of bomb threats this week that forced the closure of hundreds of schools set to function as polling stations for Sunday’s vote.

Bulgaria has been governed mainly by caretaker governments appointed by President Rumen Radev since public anger over years of corruption boiled over into massive protests in 2020. The political crisis has prompted Bulgaria to postpone adopting the euro by one year to 2025.

WATCH: There are concerns over possible political fraud after it was decided Bulgarian voters would be able to use paper ballots as well as electronic voting machines that are considered less susceptible to manipulation.

Bulgaria Vote Could Be 'Messy' With Return Of Paper Ballots
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The Balkan country of nearly 8 million, the second-most corrupt in the EU according to Transparency International, also is struggling with rampant inflation that is hampering an economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Bulgaria had the highest mortality rates from the coronavirus in the EU amid low inoculation rates due, in part, to vaccine skepticism, much of it fanned on social media.

The center-right GERB party, which was leading the government when the protests erupted, and the pro-European coalition of We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria are expected to lead in the voting, much like in the previous poll in October that was followed by numerous failed attempts by both and other parties to form a viable governing coalition.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will have monitors on the ground to observe voting.

Fears of possible voting fraud have been sparked by a decision by electoral officials to limit the use of electronic voting machines and return to paper ballots.

“We are going to have a very difficult electoral night,” predicted political scientist Daniel Smilov in comments earlier this week to RFE/RL. “I hope that the government will manage to prevent widespread manipulation.”

The election campaign was also marked by state-run television and radio giving airtime to extremist candidates from parties with little public support under changes to electoral laws introduced in 2021.

The head of Bulgarian National Television, Emil Koshlukov, admitted publicly that the debates were largely nothing more than "parody," and even apologized to viewers and TV presenters for being forced to listen to "outright nonsense."

Radev on February 2 dissolved parliament and announced the latest snap poll after six attempts to form a government failed since July 2022.

That came after the pro-Western government of Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov fell in June after a no-confidence vote in parliament after only six months in power.

Petkov and his fragile coalition took over in December 2021 following eight months of political impasse and two interim administrations after protests against high-level corruption ended the decade-long rule of the former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, the leader of GERB.

As long as the caretaker government is in power, Radev, who appointed it, has said Sofia will not supply Kyiv with military hardware, including Soviet-era jets and tanks. On March 21, Radev, a former air force pilot who is known for his pro-Kremlin leanings, refused to join a dozen EU states to supply Ukraine with at least 1 million artillery shells over the next year.

Officially, Bulgaria, also a member of NATO, was one of the last EU countries to officially supply Ukraine with lethal military aid, although behind the scenes the country has likely done much more.

Petkov recently said that his country had secretly supplied Ukraine with ammunition and much-needed diesel fuel in the first months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. Last June, Aleksandar Mihaylov, then-director of Kintex, a state-owned arms and ammunition trading company, said Bulgaria had sent 4,200 tons of weapons to Ukraine via Poland.

Latest polling data collated by Politico in its Poll of Polls showed GERB at 26 percent, neck and neck with Petkov's We Continue The Change and Democratic Bulgaria, which formed a coalition ahead of this vote.

In third, is the Movement For Rights and Freedoms, a center-right party representing ethnic Turks and other Muslims, with 14 percent. Just behind that party at 13 percent is Revival, a far-right, pro-Kremlin nationalist party that advocates for Bulgaria to exit both NATO and the EU.

With 8 percent is the leftwing Bulgarian Socialist Party that backs sanctions being lifted against Russia and opposes any military aid being sent to Ukraine.

Two parties are polling below the 4-percent threshold, including There Are Such People, a populist party founded by Slavi Trifonov, a TV host and singer, with 3 percent.

Smilov, an associate professor at the University of Sofia, predicts the vote is unlikely to end the country's political impasse.

"Unfortunately, I don't see a kind of easy and very fast resolution to the situation."

The instability will continue to negatively impact on Bulgaria, offered Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a lecturer at Oxford University.

"Yes, instability is bad -- not so much because of Ukraine as Bulgaria will continue contributing (e.g. arms industries providing shells) but because of delayed eurozone entry," Bechev said in e-mailed remarks, adding Bulgaria could face even worse outcomes.

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