* Rallies across Bulgaria after government ousted
* New election expected by May
* Electricity bills at times exceed incomes
By Tsvetelia Tsolova
SOFIA, Feb 24 Tens of thousands of people
marched in cities across Bulgaria on Sunday, demanding an end to
high utility bills and new voting rules after the government was
toppled last week.
Public anger with power monopolies in the European Union's
poorest member forced right-of-centre Prime Minister Boiko
Borisov's cabinet to resign and has put the country on track for
an early election by May.
Although Borisov's government managed to maintain fiscal
stability since taking power in 2009, belt-tightening has held
back growth and driven up unemployment.
His departure has failed to calm voters fed up with low
living standards and rampant graft, and his GERB party is now
running neck-and-neck with the opposition Socialists ahead of
the new election.
The last straw for many was a jump in winter electricity
bills that at times exceeded incomes in a country where average
salaries are just 400 euros ($530) a month and pensions are less
than half that amount.
Much of the anger has been directed at power companies
including Czech CEZ and Energo-Pro and
Austria's EVN, which bought exclusive rights to
distribute energy in specific regions from Bulgaria in 2004.
Waving Bulgarian flags and slogans reading "Fighting for
decent life" and "Down with monopolies" over 10,000 Bulgarians
marched through downtown Sofia.
"For years and years the politicians failed to impose strict
controls over monopolies. This should stop," said 54-year-old
Irena Mitova, a shop owner in Sofia.
Demonstrations also took place in around 40 other cities,
with some 15,000 people marching in Bulgaria's second and third
largest cities Plovdiv and Varna.
Separate, smaller protests were held against an inefficient
education system that critics say does not prepare students for
the labour market and against high interest charges from retail
banks criticised for hurting small businesses.
President Rosen Plevneliev, who will probably appoint a
caretaker government and dissolve parliament next week to pave
the way for the early election, met protesters and ensured them
their voices would be heard.
Protesters' demands ranged from imposing a moratorium on
paying electricity bills for December and January until audits
are carried out to sweeping changes in the constitution to allow
the direct vote for deputies, rather than using party lists.
Some of the protesters demanded parliament continue with its
work to adopt laws to ensure strict controls over the energy
monopolies. Many want them to be renationalised and say
politicians sold firms since the fall of communism in 1989 in a
way that hurt public interest and kept living standards low.
Borisov had promised an 8 percent cut in electricity bills
as of March - reversing much of a 13 percent rise his government
approved last year - and has said the energy regulator would
begin the process to revoke CEZ's licence.
The regulator said a possible price decrease could be
introduced as of April at the earliest and suggested there was
room for compromise with CEZ.
($1 = 0.7598 euros)
(Editing by Michael Winfrey and Alison Williams)