March 26, 2017 8:46:19 pm
Bulgarians voted Sunday for the third time in four years in an early election that could tilt the European Union’s poorest member closer to Russia. The election campaign focused on the future of the EU and the influence of Russia and Turkey on domestic politics, as well as on the increased number of migrants coming into this southeastern European nation that borders Greece, Turkey and Romania.
Some 6.8 million Bulgarians are eligible to vote in an election widely predicted to bring about a fragile government coalition and a fragmented legislature where nationalist and populist parties could become kingmakers. The first results from exit polls are expected shortly after the polls close at 8 p.m. (1700GMT).
Surveys say former Prime Minister Boiko Borisov’s center-right GERB party is running neck-and neck with the Socialist Party of ex-communists. Both parties have pledged to improve economic relations with Russia, appealing to voters who feel let down by the EU. Bulgaria is also a member of NATO.
“I voted for a stable, predictable and united Bulgaria, because tomorrow our nation needs to be united,” Borisov said after casting his ballot.
Borisov resigned after his party lost November 2016 presidential election. Parliament was dissolved in January and the president appointed a caretaker government that will stay until a new Parliament and government are elected.
Socialist leader Kornelia Ninova wants EU sanctions against Russia lifted, a bigger role for the state in the economy, and has wooed voters with promises of higher salaries and pensions.
“(I voted) for a change … for security at our borders and inside the country, for justice, and lastly not to give an opportunity to another country, no matter if it comes from East, West or South, to interfere in our politics,” she said Sunday.
The election has sparked protests at the Turkish border by Bulgarian nationalists who are determined to keep Bulgarian citizens living permanently in Turkey from coming in to vote.
Borisov, a 57-year-old political maverick who combines man-in-the-street rhetoric with a pro-EU disposition, is a key figure in the election. His party was defeated by Rumen Radev, a former air force general, in the November 2016 presidential election.
The GERB party’s popularity faded because of the slow pace of reforms to eliminate graft and poverty and overhaul the judicial system. It is now pledging to fight corruption and to raise minimum wages and supports EU sanctions on Russia over its role in the Ukraine crisis.
A populist party Volya (Will) can enter Parliament if it wins more than the minimum four percent. It’s led by Veselin Mareshki, a wealthy businessman whose anti-establishment message combines patriotic rhetoric with promises of strict immigration controls and friendlier relations with Moscow.
The border blockade by nationalists reflects rising tensions between Bulgaria and Turkey over Turkey’s open backing for a group that represents Bulgaria’s sizeable Turkish minority. Some 10 percent of Bulgarians are of Turkish origin or are Muslims. More than 300,000 have settled permanently in Turkey, but still hold a Bulgarian passport and are eligible to vote.
The protesters claim Turkish officials are forcing expatriate voters to support DOST, a pro-Ankara party running for the first time.
The tense relations have prompted a spat between the two nations’ leaders. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has criticized what he described as “pressure” on ethnic Turks in Bulgaria, his Bulgarian counterpart Radev has retorted that his country would not accept democracy lessons from Turkey.
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