Bulgarians are casting their votes in a general election – the fourth in 18 months – marked by a raging war nearby, political instability, and economic hardships in the European Union’s poorest member.
Polling stations opened at 7am (0400 GMT) on Sunday. The first exit poll results will be announced after polls close at 8pm (1700 GMT) and preliminary results are expected on Monday.
Surveys ahead of the ballot suggested that up to eight parties could muster the 4% threshold to enter a fragmented parliament where populist and pro-Russia groups could increase their representation.
Following a lame campaign, turnout is expected to be low due to voters’ apathy and disillusionment with politicians unable to cobble together a viable government coalition.
The early election comes after a fragile coalition led by pro-Western prime minister Kiril Petkov lost a no-confidence vote in June. He claimed afterwards that Moscow used “hybrid war” tactics to bring the government down as it refused to pay gas bills in roubles and ordered a massive expulsion of Russian diplomats from Bulgaria.
A low turnout favours the former ruling GERB party of three-time former prime minister Boyko Borissov which, despite a further erosion of support, can still count on a bulk of loyal voters, and is most likely to finish first.
Nevertheless, the predicted percentage will not be enough for Mr Borissov party to form a one-party government, and the chances for a GERB-led coalition are slim as it is blamed for corruption by most opponents.
A recent Gallup International survey ranked GERB first with 25.8%, followed by its main rival – Mr Petkov’s We Continue The Change party with 16.6%.
Mr Petkov rejected the opinion poll results as questionable and voiced confidence that the vote will yield positive results for his party.
“This time we will win even more, and I expect that we will be able to form a coalition,” he said at his party’s final campaign rally on Friday.
Many Bulgarians share pro-Russian sentiments, which provides a fertile soil for the aggressive Kremlin propaganda in the Balkan country.
The war in Ukraine was among the main topics in this campaign and calls by the leader of the pro-Russia party Vazrazhdane, Kostadin Kostadinov, for “full neutrality” of Bulgaria in the war, or calls to renegotiate relations with the EU, are attracting many voters.