Anger, apathy and distrust as Bulgaria votes

Bulgarian pensioner Stefka Popova takes a dim view of the politicians running for office in elections Sunday in the EU's poorest member state.

"I won't vote. They've lost all respect for their own people," the retired metallurgy worker told AFP as she sold newspapers in Sofia to supplement her meagre pension.

Her anger was exacerbated by the discovery on Saturday of 350,000 illegal ballot papers at a printing firm whose owner is reportedly close to the former prime minister's party.

"It's not enough that they give me a monthly pension of 160 leva (82 euros, $106), but now they thought they could give me a ballot that's already filled in. How dare they!"

Popova is not alone in her despair about the state of democracy in the 7.4-million-strong country more than two decades after the fall of communism, and six years since joining the European Union.

Three months ago, public anger about unaffordable utility bills, poverty and corruption sparked mass protests that toppled the government of premier Boyko Borisov.

Bulgaria, sandwiched between Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Romania and the Black Sea, is the EU's poorest and more graft-prone member, with average monthly salaries frozen at 400 euros ($520) and pensions at 138 euros.

Almost a quarter of the population lives below the official poverty line.

Few believe that Sunday's snap general election will bring much change, with polls suggesting low turnout and predicting that Borisov's party will again win the most votes.

But his conservative GERB party will likely fall well short of a majority, paving the way for tough coalition talks and possibly even fresh elections if the vote leads to a political deadlock.

"This is the last chance of the two big parties to show that they can take responsibility," teacher Stayko Gudzhev, 57, said outside a polling station in a well-to-do neighbourhood in downtown Sofia.

"If they don't do it, this will be the end of both GERB and BSP," referring to Borisov's party and the opposition socialists, projected to come a close second in the polls.

Worries about voting irregularities had already prompted the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to send its biggest monitoring team to Bulgaria since the country's first democratic elections in 1990.

Five parties -- but not GERB -- have also commissioned an independent vote count.

"I have no words to express my disgust. I don't think anything like this has ever happened in a EU state," retired economist Stefka Georgieva, 60, said about the alleged vote-rigging at another Sofia polling station, after casting a ballot for the Socialists.

Further poisoning the atmosphere during the campaign was a scandal over the alleged illegal wiretapping of Borisov's political opponents and businesspeople.

"Things have got so hot with all these damaging things we've heard that it should be clear to them (politicians) that they either change things, or people will hit the streets again," said Gudzhev, the teacher.

"If not we'll all just leave this country."

"I voted for GERB. I don't think they did enough for people, for mothers like me, but I don't think anyone else can do better. It's always been all talk and no deeds, you know," added Gergana, 27, pushing her toddler in a pram.

Asked if he hoped that elections would bring about change, Dimitar, a student, shrugged: "Hope? I just want to finish my studies and go abroad."

The first partial results were not expected until Monday, although exit polls were due around 8:00 pm (1700 GMT) when polling stations close.