Deadlock looms for Bulgaria as election nears
VELIKO TARNOVO, Bulgaria
VELIKO TARNOVO, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Bulgaria's two main political parties made final pitches to frustrated voters before an election on Sunday that opinion polls show is unlikely to produce a decisive outcome for either side.
Former bodyguard Boiko Borisov's center-right GERB party was forced to resign in February after thousands of people took to the streets to protest against high utility bills, entrenched corruption and low living standards.
Six years after joining the European Union, many Bulgarians are disillusioned with politicians in the 27-member bloc's poorest country, plagued by corruption and organized crime.
GERB is locked in a tight battle with the Socialists to lead the Balkan country, but a fifth of voters are undecided and the winner will be unlikely to have a strong mandate.
President Rosen Plevneliev appealed to Bulgarians to vote and elect a government that will be sensitive to society's woes.
"We need stability and a working parliament. We need a government that enjoys a high degree of trust and institutions open to people's problems," he said in a televised address.
In a closing rally after a campaign in which leading parties have avoided big events because of protests, Borisov said he could kick-start the economy and keep building infrastructure.
"We want to build up Bulgaria," he told some 1,000 cheering supporters in a square of the old capital, Veliko Tarnovo.
A Gallup International poll put support for GERB at 24 percent and the Socialists at 23.6, indicating a struggle to form a government, which needs to use EU funds, tackle graft and ensure rule of law to attract much-needed foreign investment.
The Socialists narrowed GERB's lead after a senior party official was implicated in illegal wiretapping.
If no group can form a majority, Bulgaria would head to a new election, possibly in September, and remain under an interim government that has pledged fiscal stability but has limited powers to set policies or carry out reforms.
Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 but still lags the rest of the bloc and its struggles show the risk of fraying democracy and vulnerable economies in fringe members as the euro zone focuses on its financial crisis.
Many voters are uninspired by a campaign that has seen more mudslinging than presentation of policies to create jobs and bolster living standards that are less than half the EU average.
At least two protest leaders are planning election-day demonstrations.
"We will protest against the status quo, for the fact that we see again the same old parties that will not do anything to address people's problems," said Angel Slavchev, one of the leaders of the protests in February.
Under GERB, Bulgaria has kept one of the lowest deficit and debt levels in the EU to maintain a currency peg to the euro, but the economy is barely growing, unemployment is at an eight-year high and the average monthly wage is 400 euros ($520).
Borisov has campaigned on maintaining that discipline, which may reassure investors but has left him struggling to win.
"Under the previous governments my daughters left Bulgaria, they were pretty unhappy here. Things will get better if we elect GERB again," said pensioner Stefan Mitev, 63, wearing a white GERB T-shirt and cap at the Veliko Tarnovo rally.
The Socialists have promised job creation, lower taxes for the poor and increased spending but have struggled to convince beyond their core support, as memories of frozen EU aid due to corruption under their government until 2009 are still alive.
In his final speech in the southern city of Stara Zagora, leader Sergei Stanishev - who as premier in 2005-2009 oversaw a credit boom and bust that caused a deep recession - criticized GERB's failure to make significant improvements.
"If you want four more years of your life to be wasted, vote so that GERB be wiped out," Stanishev told cheering supporters waving red balloons.
($1 = 0.7709 euros)
(Additional reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova and Angel Krasimirov in Sofia; Editing by Michael Roddy)
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Protesters respond to calls to defend their demonstration from possible police intervention. Slideshow