Disillusioned, Bulgarians Head to the Polls

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SOFIA, Bulgaria -- Bulgarians went to the polls on Sunday to choose a government to replace one forced to resign following a bloody crackdown on demonstrators protesting sharp increases in electricity prices.

The election has aroused little public interest and even less discussion about the demands made in the protests that brought about the vote: improved living standards and an end to government corruption and incompetence. Many protesters also called for a more representative form of government, with direct representation instead of party lists.

Emblematic of deep public disillusionment, exit polls on Sunday indicated that the same parties would be returned to power. Surveys conducted by the Sofia-based Alpha Research show that the governing party of former Prime Minister Boiko Borisov received 31 percent, while the Socialist Party, the former Communists, received 27 percent.

The two likely coalition partners would be either the far-right Ataka party or the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms, neither of which would make a comfortable fit.

"Only the hard-core electorate turn out to vote," said Ivo Maev, a political analyst based in London, blaming public disappointment and apathy for keeping voters at home.

Mr. Borisov's party may try to form a coalition with Ataka, which would cause tension between his party and the European People's Party of which it is a member. The Turkish party is traditionally an ally of the Socialists.

Mr. Maev said he expected new elections in the fall.

"Most of the Bulgarian people have exceptionally poor political literacy," said Blagoy Boychev, 27, an actor, drinking beer on a bench in the shady park at the Church of the Seven Saints in Sofia.

"They believe whoever promises them the most," he said.

While the protests provided an outlet for the public to express their grievances, he says, "the protesters expected some grandiose changes which didn't happen," and disappointment or apathy increased as a result.

Accusations of corruption played out just before voting began with the announcement that 350,000 illegal ballots had been found in a printing facility owned by a city councilor from Mr. Borisov's party. The timing of the announcement -- on Saturday, the so-called day of consideration, when political campaigning and alcohol sales are banned before the polls open -- raised claims that it was intended to damage the ruling party.

The Central Electoral Commission declined to comment.

Sergei Stanishev, the head of the opposition Socialists, the former Communists, called the illegal ballots a huge fraud that was "unique in scale and arrogance." In a news conference, Mr. Stanishev said that the government of Mr. Borisov, a former firefighter, karate champion and owner of a private security company, "has returned us to the 19th century."

President Rosen Plevneliev, who is from the same party as Mr. Borisov, said Bulgarians should avoid jumping to conclusions before the authorities had concluded their investigation.

"I refer with confidence to the actions of institutions and support their efforts," Mr. Plevneliev said.

Atanas Lozanov, 64, a retired truck driver, in the park at the Church of the Seven Saints had a different interpretation.

"It means that no one can fix this country, everything is corruption and that no matter who wins the elections, it will be the same thing," Mr. Lozanov said.

While the Prosecutor's Office reported that the ballots were ready for distribution to polling locations, some reports in the news media have disputed the claim. The office has not specified for which electoral region or regions the ballots were printed.

After the recent revelations, the Bulgarian blogger Asen Genov joked on Facebook that it was unclear whether "we still need to vote or have we voted already?"

Tihomir Bezlov, a corruption analyst at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, questioned whether the illegal ballots could have been used.

"Even if you did deliver the illegal ballots to polling places, how would they be introduced?" Mr. Bezlov asked, noting that there are strict controls and usually five people working in each polling location.

The most common scheme used to buy votes in the last general election in 2009 was by securing a patron or boss in a neighborhood, either through employment or money, Mr. Bezlov said. The patron would then ensure the votes of all the people in his area, usually with cash payments, food products, jobs or other support.

According to Mr. Bezlov, vote-buying should be less prevalent in this election because of the economic crisis -- parties have less money available -- and because of the heavy presence of outside observers.

Mr. Bezlov expected more charges of electoral fraud to be brought out by journalists in the coming days.

Charges of electoral fraud are common in Bulgaria. Even before the country joined the European Union in 2007, the European Commission has been hammering Bulgaria for failing to clean up its weak judicial system and systemic corruption.

The country's national literary hero Bai Ganyo -- a rough but clever villager from the 19th century, whose misadventures in Europe poke fun at Bulgarians' complexes about their lack of "Europeanness" -- brags about cheating to get elected, paying two levs per man and for "a whole night of eating and drinking" before the elections.

"It's a huge mess," said Katerina Sakalova, 64, a retired teacher. "Our country is beautiful, but the state is so run down that I don't see how it can be fixed is less than 10 years."

"I dream that things will change for the better for my grandchildren because I want them to live in Bulgaria and not have to leave," she said.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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