Bulgarians have voted in an election widely seen as a referendum on the country’s prime minister after months of anti-government protests and amid a surge in coronavirus cases.
Prime Minister Boyko Borissov is hoping to win his fourth term. The 61-year-old politician has led the populist GERB party since its founding in 2006 and has ruled Bulgaria with an iron grip for most of the last 11 years.
“I have always taken into account what the people decide … Let the elections be honest,” Mr Borissov was quoted as saying after he cast his ballot without reporters present due to pandemic restrictions.
Mr Borissov has avoided contact with journalists since the protests started in July, instead relying on social media to broadcast his almost daily campaign stops at construction sites while promoting his party’s slogan: “Work, work, work.”
Support for Mr Borrissov has eroded since thousands took to the streets and accused the government of being influenced by oligarchs, failing to eliminate corruption and poverty and failing to overhaul the judicial system.
President Rumen Radev, a vocal critic of Mr Borissov, urged Bulgarians to turn Sunday’s election into the first step towards a return to laws and rules.
“I voted against the collapse of statehood, lawlessness and corruption and for a free, just and prosperous Bulgaria,” he said after voting.
Some 6.7 million eligible voters were electing 240 MPs.
Bulgaria, which joined Nato in 2004 and the European Union in 2007, has been repeatedly criticised for corruption and deficiencies in the rule of law and media freedom, but Mr Borissov trumpeted the country’s ties with the West.
“The immense support we received from our counterparts in Europe shows the importance of a stable European government in Bulgaria,” he said.
The latest election polls suggested that while the vote may produce a fragmented parliament that will struggle to elect a new government, Mr Borissov’s GERB will end up with the most seats. The polls showed the party 5-10 percentage points ahead of its main challenger, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, but far from gaining the absolute majority needed to govern alone.
The leader of the Socialists, Kornelia Ninova, said she voted for “reforms and stability” and for “a social Bulgaria which won’t leave anyone alone in the crisis”.
Several smaller groups are expected to ride the anti-government sentiment to secure the 4% threshold required to enter parliament for the first time. One, led by a popular TV entertainer, is projected to place third.
Despite opposition criticism of the government’s response to the pandemic, a lower turnout because of fears of infection and the absence of postal or proxy voting could benefit incumbent MPs.