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Bulgaria's parliament accepted Thursday the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's government after days of sometimes violent protests against high electricity bills and low wages in the EU's poorest country.
The surprise resignation announced on Wednesday came five months ahead of the scheduled end of the government's term of office, opening the way for early elections in late April.
Nationwide protests have shaken Bulgaria in the past 10 days. They were first sparked by high electricity bills but soon snowballed into wider anger against deepening poverty and corruption in the small Balkan country.
The once hugely popular Borisov attempted to ease the crisis by sacking his unpopular finance minister on Monday and vowing to revoke the licence of Czech electricity giant CEZ 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 on Thursday 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 -- in the interest of Bulgaria and its citizens, who do not want to see violence on the streets," 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," he added in the absence of Borisov, who skipped the debates and only came to parliament for the vote.
The severely cash-strapped cabinet managed to avoid any major turmoil amid the global crisis but kept public salaries frozen at about 400 euros ($534) and typical pensions at 138 euros ($184) for the past three years, while unemployment hit 11.9 percent of the workforce in January.
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.
Political analyst Kolyo Kolev saw a risk of "street aggression and anarchy."
Plevneliev also appealed in his address for civil peace and the rule of law.
New protests were scheduled for Thursday evening with a major nationwide rally "against all political parties and the mafia" organised on social networking websites for Sunday.
A Gallup poll Thursday showed that 92 percent of the Bulgarians supported the rallies.
Some 89 percent of people polled by the Alpha Research institute meanwhile said they backed the protesters' economic demands "against the power monopolies and low incomes."
Opinions were however polarised about the premier's shock resignation with 50 percent approving it and 47 percent against it.
A 1,000-strong crowd gathered outside parliament during the vote Thursday shouting "We want Boyko!" and prompting accusations from the opposition that GERB sought to spark "a civil war."
"I want to thank you for the support. But do not rally tonight. Everyone who loves me and respects me should go home now," Borisov told the crowd, seeking to prevent clashes with anti-government protesters.
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.