SOFIA Bulgaria's opposition Socialists on Friday demanded a referendum to challenge the government's decision to abandon construction of a nuclear power plant, an increasingly divisive issue in the run up to next year's parliamentary election.
The Socialists submitted more than 770,000 signatures to parliament calling for the referendum - well above the half million they need to force a plebiscite.
But analysts said the government would likely resist efforts to revive a national debate on the fate of the planned Russian-built 2,000 megawatt Belene plant.
The centre-right cabinet cancelled the project in March saying it was too costly and had failed to attract serious interest from Western investors.
But the Socialists have argued the country had already sunk too much money into the project to abandon it.
"We do not want important issues like this - (whether) to develop nuclear energy in Bulgaria or not - to be decided behind closed doors," Socialist Party leader Sergei Stanishev said after lodging the signatures in the parliament.
Many people in the EU's poorest state were also hoping the new plant would keep electricity prices low. Bulgaria already has one operational 2,000 megawatt nuclear plant on the Danube River at Kozloduy which provides cheap electricity.
Parliament will have three months to check the collected signatures and decide whether to allow the referendum to take place.
Economy and Energy Minister Delyan Dobrev said a referendum on Belene would not be a good idea, as the country's population did not have enough information about the plant's costs, previously estimated at more than 10 billion euros ($12.37 billion).
"People should be well-informed about the project because we still do not know how much it will cost and we do not have a strategic investor," he told a news conference.
Opinion polls show the ruling GERB remains the most popular political party, though austerity measures and a lack of significant results in fighting crime and graft have eroded its support.
Political analysts say the government would try to at least delay the divisive referendum to avoid any further erosion of its popularity ahead of the election.
"They will use all possible mechanisms to hinder the referendum," said Boriana Dimitrova from Alpha Research.
($1 = 0.8084 euros)
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov)