Bulgarians vote Sunday for the third time this year, but there is little hope that the latest general election will finally produce a stable government to fight the country’s deadliest coronavirus wave.
Massive anti-graft protests last year have meant a drop in support for conservative Bokyo Borisov, who long headed the poor Balkan nation, which has the EU’s lowest Covid vaccination rate and one of the world’s highest pandemic death rates.
“I wish the elections are successful this time so that we have a new government for a better life,” Stanka Lenkova, a 73-year-old pensioner, told AFP at a polling station on the outskirts of Sofia.
Polling stations opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and are scheduled to close at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) when the first exit polls are expected to be published.
Turnout is historically low in the EU member, and many have said they are disheartened after elections in April and July returned fractured parliaments where parties failed to cobble together a coalition.
– ‘Feeling of chaos’ -Analysts have said they expect parties to try hard to form a government to end the worst political crisis since the fall of Communism, highlighting the need to tackle the raging pandemic.
The interim administration failed to impose stricter measures and stop new infections and deaths from spiralling.
Just 23 percent of Bulgaria’s 6.9 million people are fully vaccinated, while around 200 people have recently been dying each day in short-staffed hospitals.
Three Covid-19 patients also died early Sunday when a fire broke out in a coronavirus hospital ward in the southeast, most likely caused by a cigarette smoked by one of the victims, according to the health ministry.
“I hope that political leaders learnt their lesson and that this will push them to negotiate,” New Bulgarian University political science professor Antony Todorov told AFP.
“There’s this feeling of chaos,” he added.
Uncertainty coupled with rising electricity and gas prices has hit the economy.
Three-time premier Borisov’s GERB party — tipped to come out on top with some 23 percent of the vote — “exploits this feeling very well” with election posters calling for “Order in the chaos”, Todorov said.
“We will do everything we can to end this chaos,” Borisov told reporters as he cast his vote.
But observers say the 62-year-old, who has faced multiple revelations about alleged past misuse of public funds, is unlikely to return to power as he is seen as an “unacceptable” partner by most other parties.
– Unstable coalition? -Boryana Dimitrova of the Alpha Research institute said Bulgarians were “inclined to vote for the parties of change, which they consider capable of forming a government”.
Most hopes appear pinned on a pair of Harvard-educated former businessmen — Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, both in their 40s.
Their recently founded movement, which wants to eradicate corruption in the EU’s most graft-prone member, polls neck-and-neck with the Socialists with around 16 percent of the votes.
“Bulgaria needs a normal, operating government. It does not matter if you are left, centre or right. If we are able to stop this (corruption) and use money for the taxpayers’ welfare, then we should be able to align with a lot of parties I hope,” Petkov said after he cast his ballot in Sofia.
Dimitrova, however, warned the duo though “very enthusiastic” had little experience in politics and might end up leading an “unstable” coalition.
A first-round presidential vote is being held along with the parliamentary elections, with outgoing Socialist-backed president Rumen Radev running for a second five-year term as an independent.
Although Radev is a clear favourite among a total of 23 candidates, analysts expect the race to go into a run-off on November 21.