Bulgarians vote for new parliament amid corruption, COVID woes

More than 6.7 million Bulgarians are eligible to vote, but pollsters expect a low turnout due to voters’ fears of the coronavirus and a slow vaccine rollout.

A woman walks past election posters of the ruling centre-right GERB party in the town of Dupnitsa [Stoyan Nenov/Reuters]

Bulgarians are voting for a new parliament after months of anti-government protests and amid a surge in coronavirus infections.

The 12,000 polling stations opened at 7am (04:00GMT) on Sunday and close at 8pm (17:00GMT) for the 6.7 million eligible voters who are electing 240 lawmakers.

The vote is widely seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Boyko Borissov to decide if he wins a fresh four-year mandate despite persistent concerns about corruption in the European Union’s poorest member state.

More than 6.7 million Bulgarians are eligible to vote, but pollsters expect a low turnout due to voters’ fears of the coronavirus and a slow vaccine rollout.

Opinion polls suggest Borissov’s centre-right GERB will again be the largest party, with 28 to 29 percent of the vote, but will fall short of a majority and may struggle to build a stable coalition in a more fractured parliament.

That, in turn, could hamper Bulgaria’s ability to tap effectively the European Union’s 750 billion-euro ($884b) Recovery Fund to help rebuild its battered economy after the pandemic.

President Rumen Radev, a staunch critic of Borissov, has urged Bulgarians to think carefully before voting on Sunday, saying the country needs new faces and ideas.

Bulgarian PM Borissov receives his ballot as he votes in a parliamentary election in Sofia [Courtesy of Boyko Borissov/Facebook via Reuters]

The main opposition Socialists campaigned on restoring trust in state institutions and reducing poverty, but have been hampered by internal squabbles and the rise of smaller anti-graft parties and are expected to win only 20 to 22 percent of the vote.

An anti-elite party led by TV host Slavi Trifonov looks set to finish third with 13 percent. Trifonov says he opposes any coalition with mainstream parties, raising the spectre of a deadlocked parliament if his party performs well.

It is closely followed by the MRF party that is traditionally supported by the Turkish minority.

Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up! Mafia Out!, boosted by the protests, are also expected to win seats. GERB’s coalition partner, the nationalist VMRO party, is close to the four percent threshold, polls show.

Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from the capital Sofia, said that Borissov is likely to keep his job.

“Borissov’s party is just under 30 percent of the vote in the opinion polls. Political experts here say a national unity government is possible at the end of the elections,” he said. “If that happens, Borissov, as leader of the largest party, would likely keep his job.”

Bulgaria weathered the first wave of the pandemic last year relatively well, but like other eastern European countries has suffered badly in the current wave.

It is now recording about 4,000 new daily cases and has the second-highest COVID-related death rate in the EU after Hungary.

Although hospitals are full, the government has eased some lockdown restrictions ahead of the vote, allowing restaurants to serve customers outdoors and cinemas and gyms to operate at 30 percent capacity.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies