* Rightist GERB government resigned during protests
* Remains most popular party but unlikely to win majority
* Discontent with poverty likely to persist
* President urges Bulgarians to vote to avoid polls
By Tsvetelia Tsolova
SOFIA, May 12 Bulgarians voted on Sunday in an
election marred by suspicions of rigging, with expectations of a
close result that is likely to prolong uncertainty in the
European Union's poorest country.
The rightist GERB party, which resigned after violent
demonstrations over poverty and corruption in February, is
running neck-and-neck with the Socialists. That raises the
possibility that neither might be able to form a coalition and
could ultimately mean a new election.
Six years after Bulgaria joined the European Union,
disaffection with the political elite is widespread in the
country of 7.3 million. Unemployment is close to an eight-year
high and one in four lives below the poverty line.
On the eve of the parliamentary election, state security
officers seized 350,000 illegal ballot papers, increasing fears
of rigging in the Balkan country, notorious for graft and
Socialist leader Sergei Stanishev called the discovery an
"unprecedented conspiracy against democracy" but President Rosen
Plevneliev, an independent who has GERB's backing, told
reporters that nobody would be able to get away with cheating.
A recent survey found that 12 percent of Bulgarians were
willing to sell their votes. Because of worries over the
process, five parties - not including GERB - have hired an
Austrian company to carry out a parallel vote count.
While the euro zone has been preoccupied by its debt crisis,
the troubles in Bulgaria show the risks of growing political and
economic upheavals on the European Union's fringes.
GERB pledges to keep debts under control and maintain
economic stability, winning favour from investors, while the
Socialists say they will spend more, creating jobs and lifting
growth above the one percent expected this year.
Wary of staging big events because of the public anger,
politicians have kept campaigning relatively low profile. The
activists who brought down the GERB government plan protests
after polls close.
"People are poor, people are discouraged," said Rumen
Blagoev, 62, a retired policeman in Sofia. He planned to vote
Supporters of the GERB party, led by heavily built former
bodyguard Boiko Borisov, praise it for building schools and
"I think that GERB needs another four years to finish what
it started," said Snezhana Georgieva, a teacher voting in Sofia
Under GERB, Bulgaria has kept one of the lowest debt levels
in the EU to maintain a currency peg to the euro, but its
opponents say that has constrained growth in the country where
the average monthly wage is 400 euros ($520).
GERB has also suffered political damage from a wiretapping
But with a recent opinion poll giving it 24 percent to 23.6
percent for the Socialists, GERB could still emerge as the
That would give it first chance to form a government,
possibly in alliance with nationalist Attack and other small
right of centre parties.
An interim government, appointed by the president and with
limited powers, will stay in place until the new one is formed.
Some 6.9 million Bulgarians can vote in over 11,600 voting
sections at home and abroad. Exit polls are expected at 8 p.m.
(1700 GMT) and partial official results will be available early