Deadlock, instability loom after Bulgaria election

A winter of discontent in Bulgaria, when mass protests forced out the government, could give way to a spring of political deadlock and instability after elections Sunday in the EU's poorest country.

The outcome is expected to be a fragmented parliament full of many of the same politicians who have run Bulgaria since the end of communism two decades ago.

Voters are stuck in a blind alley, facing a "choice between the same parties they protested against this winter", Ivan Krastev from the Centre for Liberal Strategies think-tank said.

"The offer on the political market does not correspond to the demand," added Zhivko Georgiev from pollsters Gallup. Up to 18.5 percent of people plan not to vote, a Scala poll showed.

"Whatever the result of the elections, the political crisis will continue," said Ognyan Minchev of the Institute for Regional and International Studies.

"Forming a government in the next parliament will be almost impossible," he added.

Six years after joining the European Union, monthly salaries in Bulgaria remain stuck at less than 400 euros ($524) and pensions at 138 euros -- a fraction of the European average.

Anger over falling living standards, deepening poverty, rising unemployment, corruption and cronyism exploded into a nationwide protest movement in the winter. Seven people set themselves on fire.

It was just the latest period of bitter political and economic crisis to rock 7.4-million-strong Bulgaria since the advent of democracy in 1989 and EU membership in 2007.

Rather than serve out the remaining four months of his premiership, Boyko Borisov threw in the towel on February 20.

But three months on, many voters still feel reassured by the 53-year-old's tough-guy charisma, even if his slippery convictions make him difficult to place on the political spectrum.

His conservative GERB party is tipped to win the parliamentary vote with 23.0 to 25.6 percent of the vote, short of a governing majority and a far cry from the 39.7 percent he scored in 2009.

Even with the government's woes and promises of tax cuts and "new morals" in politics, the opposition Socialists are seen mustering only 17.8-22.3 percent, compared with 17.7 percent four years ago.

-- Election monitors --

A number of smaller parties are meanwhile expected to pass the four-percent threshold to enter parliament, making for a more fragmented chamber and complicating coalition talks.

The rallies fuelled support for the ultra-nationalist Ataka party, set to enter parliament again along with the liberal Turkish minority MRF party and new centrist formation DBG of ex-European commissioner Meglena Kuneva, polls showed.

None wants to form a coalition with GERB, however.

Voter disillusionment deepened during the campaign, as mudslinging over a wiretapping scandal stole the limelight from people's deepening social woes, which surveys put top of voters' concerns.

Civil society groups that emerged in the street rallies found they had insufficient time to organise and register for the vote, invalidating the protesters' key demand for more representatives in government.

"The people from the streets went home. But they did not forgive or forget... They expect solutions not scandals," interim technocrat premier Marin Raykov warned.

Allegations of vote-buying have also marred the campaign, prompting the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to dispatch a team of 240 observers -- the biggest in decades.

Election results were also likely to be contested, with a group of parties led by the Socialists ordering a parallel count by Austrian agency SORA.

President Rosen Plevneliev warned of a "risk of prolonged instability" after the vote, calling for parties to unite around a coalition or a national consensus cabinet to avoid more elections.