Bulgaria's ruling GERB extends lead ahead of Sunday's vote, COVID could hit turnout

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FILE PHOTO: EU leaders summit in Brussels

SOFIA (Reuters) -Bulgaria's ruling centre-right GERB party has extended its lead over the opposition Socialists ahead of Sunday's parliamentary election but is set to fall short of a majority as smaller parties win seats, two polls published on Thursday showed.

With coronavirus infections surging in the Balkan country, the expected turnout could vary widely making the outcome harder to predict, opinion polls carried by independent pollsters Alpha Research and Trend Research Group showed.

The polls showed 28.1%-28.6% of Bulgarians planning to vote on Sunday would support GERB, which is led by three-times Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, while 19.8%-21.8% would support the their key rival, the Bulgarian Socialist Party.

Seven parties are expected to win seats in the 240-member parliament, the two polls conducted between March 26 and 30 showed, meaning neither of the big players look on course for a clear majority coalition.

Given the concern around COVID-19, the Alpha Research and Trend estimate voter turnout between 2.5 and 2.9 million people, below 3.5 million who voted in the last election in 2017.

Alpha Research said every second respondent has expressed some level of concern about contagion, which may drop activity to as low as 2.1 million in the European Union's poorest member state.

"If fear of contagion prevails on the election day, it could paint a very different picture. Thus, at this last moment, the virus will hold the 'trump card' not the parties," Alpha Research said in a statement.

Health Minister Kostadin Angelov said on Thursday the country was at the peak of its third wave, with more than 4,200 daily new infections and over 10,000 people in hospitals. The authorities are easing some restrictions, citing a rising number of people vaccinated and those who have recovered.

Analysts say a lower turnout would help traditional parties with a strong core base of support and would also allow smaller parties close to the threshold to enter parliament. A higher turnout will help protest parties win more seats.

GERB, which has pledged to boost the average monthly pay by 36% to 1000 euros, build more highways and bring the country into the eurozone in 2024, has slowly regained support after anti-corruption protests last summer.

The Socialists, who want a bigger role for the state in the economy and higher taxes for higher earners were down 1.8-3.7 percentage points, as its older support base looks less likely to vote due to fears of COVID-19.

The polls put There is Such A People, a newly-set anti-elite party led by popular TV talk show host Slavi Trifonov, on 12.6%-12.7. The ethnic-Turkish MRF party was on 12.4%-12.5.

Anti-graft Democratic Bulgaria coalition is on 5.9-6.3% and a centre-left coalition that emerged after the protests, Stand Up! Mafia Out! is on course for 4.8%-6% of the vote.

The nationalist VMRO party, a junior coalition partner in the government is on the 4%-4.3%, close to the threshold to enter parliament, the polls showed.

(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova;Editing by Alison Williams and Alexandra Hudson)