(Bloomberg) -- Bulgarians are voting in their fifth election in two years, seeking to end turmoil that has paralyzed the political system and put at risk European Union unity over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Balkan country has been grappling with a political stalemate after a series of inconclusive votes — most recently in October — has given no political force enough support to muster a ruling majority. With opinion polls showing no clear winner in Sunday’s ballot, another snap election this year is a possibility.
The war in Ukraine has only added to the chaos in the EU’s poorest country, which is on NATO’s eastern flank less than 300 miles away from Crimea across the Black Sea. Parties led by former prime ministers Boyko Borissov and Kiril Petkov are running neck and neck with the backing of more than a quarter of voters, according to opinion polls.
While they have at least said they will hold talks after ballots are counted, they’re deeply divided over accusations of corruption. The acrimony is likely to extend a political standoff, delayed Bulgaria’s plans to join the euro area, tap Covid-19 recovery funds and tackle reforms aimed at catching up with richer EU states.
“I’m not optimistic for a government,” said Capucine May, a political risk analyst at political consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “It does seem like politicians are unable to find a solution to this deadlock.”
Polls close at 8 p.m., with exit polls expected shortly after. Turnout was 9% at 11 a.m., according to the Central Electoral Committee.
During two years of short-lived governments, most power has been in the hands of interim cabinets appointed by President Rumen Radev, a NATO-trained former fighter pilot and general who has taken pro-Moscow stances, including saying Crimea is Russian in an election campaign and labeling opponents who support arming Ukraine as warmongers.
The crisis has isolated the country of 7 million on the EU periphery. With inflation last year hitting the highest this century, Bulgaria abandoned its goal to join the euro area in 2024. Additionally, no 2023 budget bill has been proposed for this year, and central bank Governor Dimitar Radev (no relation to the president) remains in his post two years after his term expired because parties can’t agree on a replacement.
“With that terrible war in Europe, with this redrawing of the world and of all the supply chains, we need to stand very clearly with the democratic world,” Borissov told reporters after casting his vote in his hometown of Bankya, urging for an agreement that creates a stable cabinet. “A scenario in which we can’t make a ruling majority will be a catastrophe for the country.”
Economic troubles in the NATO member have boosted support for the nationalist, pro-Russian Revival party. And the president has repeatedly refused to provide military aid to Ukraine on grounds that it will extend the war — a position most Bulgarians support.
Bulgaria has kept close economic ties with Moscow, being almost completely dependent on Russian gas until Vladimir Putin sent tanks into Ukraine. Its main source of electricity remains a Soviet-designed nuclear plant reliant on Russian fuel and parts for maintenance.
Radev’s interim cabinet has sought exemptions from EU sanctions in the energy sector. That’s set it apart from many EU partners. It’s been kept out of the passport-free Schengen travel zone, with some members reluctant to grant entry over doubts on graft and border security.
Prevented from staying in office following mass anti-corruption protests and elections in 2021, Borissov was briefly arrested on graft allegations under Petkov’s administration following a separate probe into photos showing his bedside nightstand piled with cash, gold bars and a pistol. He denied wrongdoing and the case for his arrest was thrown out by a judge. The US also sanctioned his former finance minister, Vladislav Goranov, for alleged sleaze.
“Corruption, inefficiency, and lack of accountability were pervasive problems affecting judicial independence and impartiality,” the State Department said last month.
On Wednesday, President Radev urged politicians to work together to end the crisis.
“Otherwise, the constitution is clear,” Radev said. “The president will appoint an interim government if the parties don’t want to, can’t, or are afraid to do so.”
(Updates with turnout in fifth paragraph, comments from ex-premier in ninth.)
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