Bulgaria government resigns, snap elections on the way

Bulgaria's parliament accepted Thursday the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's government after days of at times violent protests over low wages and persistent corruption, opening the way for early elections in late April.

The surprise resignation, which was announced on Wednesday, came five months before the government's term of office was due to end.

But it followed nationwide protests in the past 10 days that were sparked by high electricity bills but soon snowballed into wider anger against deepening poverty and corruption in the EU's poorest country.

Tough guy Borisov, once a hugely popular prime minister, attempted to ease the crisis by sacking his unpopular finance minister on Monday and vowing to revoke the licence of Czech electricity giant CEZ, one of the country's main providers, on Tuesday.

Tensions however continued, with violence at a rally on Tuesday night finally prompting the 53-year-old former bodyguard of communist dictator Todor Zhivkov and police chief to throw in the towel.

The resignation was backed in parliament by 209 lawmakers from the 215 present in the 240-seat legislature. Five were against and there was one abstention.

"This was the only right thing to do," Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said in an address to parliament.

"I apologise to the people for not delivering the politics they expected. But this was the maximum we could do while also keeping financial stability."

Borisov skipped the debates and only came to parliament for the vote.

During the global crisis, his severely cash-strapped cabinet managed to avoid any major turmoil, squeezing the public deficit to an expected 1.4 percent of output in 2012 and the public debt to 18.7 percent at the end of the third quarter of last year -- some of the lowest figures across the EU.

But this came at the cost of freezing public salaries at about 400 euros ($534) and typical pensions at 138 euros for the past three years.

Inflation rose to 4.4 percent on an annual basis in January, when unemployment hit 11.9 percent of the workforce.

Bulgaria's fiscal reserve -- important to buttress the country's currency board arrangement that ties the lev to the euro at a fixed rate -- was also down to about 4.1 billion leva (2.1 billion euros, $2.8 billion) in January, verging on its legal minimum.

-- What now? ---

With both Borisov's GERB party and the opposition Socialists refusing to form a new cabinet under the current parliament, President Rosen Plevneliev said Thursday he was ready to dissolve parliament, call snap elections "as early as possible" and put in place an expert cabinet in the coming days.

But he warned that "a caretaker government would only have limited functions."

"For me the responsible move was for the government to fulfil its mandate," Plevneliev said, adding that he was surprised by Borisov's decision to resign.

With tensions running high and the political crisis adding to people's economic woes, analysts expressed fears the resignation would not even assuage the current frustration and the country would enter a long period of instability.

On Thursday evening, some 500 demonstrators marched from the Eagles' Bridge, the sight of Tuesday's violence, to the parliament and presidency buildings, which were surrounded by metal anti-riot fencing and guarded by gendarmes.

Protests were also held in other major cities but participation had thinned down to several hundred from the thousands seen in the last 10 days.

A call on social networks for a major nationwide rally "against all political parties and the mafia of the monopolies" was still planned for Sunday.

A 1,000-strong crowd gathered outside parliament during Thursday's vote shouting "We want Boyko!".

At the same time, the opposition accused Borisov of "playing with ethnic peace" and seeking to spark "a civil war" after he accused the former leader of the Turkish ethnic minority party of ordering an attempt on his life.

A Gallup poll earlier this month showed that support for GERB had dropped to about 22 percent, while the opposition Socialists had risen to the same level. The chances that Borisov's party will be able to govern alone are thus virtually nil, with a coalition government the more likely outcome.