Bulgaria votes for fifth time in 2 years under Ukraine shadow
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Bulgaria votes for fifth time in 2 years under Ukraine shadow

A GERB party poster in Sofia this week
A GERB party poster in Sofia this week

SOFIA: Bulgarians were voting on Sunday in their fifth general election in two years, amid visible frustration and deep divisions over the war in Ukraine.

Russia's invasion of its neighbour has deepened the political crisis that has engulfed the poor Balkan country since 2020, a turmoil unseen since the fall of Communism.

Massive anti-corruption protests three years ago led to long-time prime minister Boyko Borisov losing power in 2021.

But this set off a record series of elections in the country of 6.5 million, which is a member of the European Union and NATO but is historically and culturally close to Russia.

The country's political parties have struggled since 2021 to form stable coalitions, leading to a deeply fragmented parliament and a string of interim governments.

"No-one inspires confidence any more," Krasimir Naydenov, 57, told AFP outside a polling station in Sofia.

He said he had voted nonetheless, hoping for "the government to start functioning again".

The main players in Sunday's ballot are the same as in recent elections.

The latest polls put Borisov's Conservative GERB party neck-and-neck with the reformist We Continue the Change (PP) led by Kiril Petkov, who was briefly premier in 2022.

Both have around 25 percent support.

- 'Worrying spiral' -

Turnout, which sunk to a record low of under 40 percent during the last general election in October, is expected to be low again.

"We must find a solution to the crisis," Borisov told reporters after casting his ballot.

"With this terrible war in Ukraine -- this partition of the world -- we must very clearly stay with the democratic world."

Petkov has so far ruled out working with GERB -- the target of corruption protests he himself took part in.

This time, his PP has joined forces with the small right-wing Democratic Bulgaria coalition.

"I voted for a normal European life. I voted for us to have a normal European government, normal European roads, normal European healthcare, normal European education," Harvard-educated Petkov said.

Unless Borisov withdraws, there is no end in sight to this "worrying spiral of elections", predicted Lukas Macek, associate researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute for Central and Eastern Europe.

"We find the same pattern as in other central European countries -- a former leader who clings on and the other parties who refuse to ally with him, without having much else in common," he told AFP.

"I fear the influence of pro-Russian parties in the next parliament," Ognian Peychev, a 60-year-old engineer, told AFP at a recent protest against the war in Ukraine.

The ultra-nationalist Vazrazhdane party, which defends the Kremlin's war, stands to gain some 13 percent of the vote on Sunday, according to opinion polls, up from the 10 percent it won in the October ballot.

- Pro-Russian influence -

The Socialist BSP, the successor of Bulgaria's Communist Party, has also sided with Moscow and objects to sending weapons to Ukrainian forces.

Many in Bulgaria still revere Russia as the country that ended five centuries of Ottoman rule in 1878.

"Both Petkov and Borisov are too aggressively critical of Russia," said Mariana Valkova, a 62-year-old entrepreneur who worked in the Soviet Union.

"I'd rather there wasn't a government and (President Rumen) Radev remained in charge."

Pro-Russian Radev, who has appointed interim cabinets between the inconclusive elections, has denounced Petkov and his allies as "war mongers".

He also opposes sending arms to Ukraine.

At the same time, Bulgaria's munitions factories have been running at full capacity making ammunition to be exported to Kyiv via third countries.

Polling stations opened at 7am (0400 GMT) on Sunday.

The first exit polls are expected after voting ends at 8pm (1700 GMT).

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