Close race in Bulgaria vote

Vessela Sergueva and Diana Simeonova
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Former prime minister Boyko Borisov's enthusiastically pro-EU GERB party and the Socialist Party (BSP) are both seen garnering around 30 percent in Bulgaria vote

Bulgarian voters went to the polls Sunday in a tightly fought election pitting Socialists seen as closer to Russia against two-time centre-right premier Boyko Borisov, who is seeking another comeback.

Opinion polls ahead of the vote in the European Union's poorest country, where the average monthly salary is just 500 euros ($540) and corruption is rife, also indicated a strong showing by nationalists.

A close result is expected between the karate-kicking Borisov's enthusiastically pro-European Union GERB party and the Socialist Party (BSP), newly led by the energetic Kornelia Ninova.

GERB had a narrow lead in an early exit poll -- published by local media in defiance of a ban on releasing early results -- with 31.6 percent to the BSP's 30.8 percent.

It is the ex-communist nation's third election in four years and turnout at 1 pm (1000 GMT) was just over 25 percent -- two points higher than at the same point in the last parliamentary election in 2014.

"I voted for a stable, predictable and united Bulgaria," Borisov said after casting his ballot, adding: "Bulgarians must decide today who is fit to lead this kind of politics so let them choose."

The scourge of graft -- ever-present in Bulgaria -- loomed over the poll, with prosecutors saying 79 electoral fraud probes had been launched. The Nova television channel said it had filmed ballots being offered for sale for as little as 15 euros each.

Socialist chief Ninova denied that her party's perceived Russian sympathies would have any impact if it took office.

"No foreign country, eastern or western, should be allowed to influence Bulgarian politics," she said.

Borisov, 57, once a bodyguard for Bulgaria's last communist leader, has long been the dominant figure in national politics, serving as premier from 2009 to 2013 and again from 2014 to 2017.

In between, the BSP was in power for barely a year.

Both times Borisov quit early, first in 2013 after mass protests and then last November after his candidate for the presidency was beaten by an air force general backed by the BSP.

- Rise of fringe parties -

Many voters now seem to be turning away from the main parties towards groups on the fringes, or are not bothering to vote.

"The big parties are totally disconnected from the reality of what is going on in Bulgaria and that is outright irresponsible," said IT worker Alexander Naydenov, 35.

"That is why I voted for one of the smaller parties with the hope that they can act as a balance to the big ones."

If Ninova becomes premier, it raises the prospect of NATO member Bulgaria, which has long walked a tightrope between East and West, drifting more towards Moscow.

Ninova has said she is not content with Bulgaria being a "second-class member" of the EU and that she will veto an extension of sanctions imposed by Brussels on Moscow.

Russia, which has long had close cultural and economic ties with Bulgaria, has been accused of seeking to expand its influence in other Balkan countries in recent months.

But Borisov has also said that he wants more "pragmatic" ties with Russia and Ninova, 48, insists that she remains committed to the EU.

"We are the party that ushered Bulgaria into the European Union and NATO and we stand by (our obligations in) these organisations," she told AFP in a recent interview.

- Tough coalition talks ahead -

Whichever party comes first will find it hard to form a coalition in what will likely be a highly fragmented parliament and the resulting government may not last long.

Both of the main players have ruled out a tie-up with the MRF party representing Bulgaria's Turkish minority, expected to get between eight and 11 percent of the vote.

Bulgaria is home to a 700,000-strong Muslim minority, most of them ethnic Turks, while at least 200,000 ethnic Turks with Bulgarian passports live in Turkey.

Ankara's support for a new party, Dost, which unlike the MRF fervently backs Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has fuelled a spat in recent days.

This in turn has boosted the United Patriots nationalists, who blocked the border on Friday to stop voters coming in from Turkey, and who may come third.

Another potential coalition partner is Veselin Mareshki, a colourful populist who likes being called the Bulgarian Donald Trump.