* First referendum since the fall of communism in 1989
* Vote a test for PM Borisov ahead of July election
* Voting rules mean referendum unlikely to be binding
(Adds low voter activity)
By Tsvetelia Tsolova
SOFIA, Jan 27 Bulgarians are expected to vote in
favor of building a new nuclear power plant in their first
referendum in the post-communist era on Sunday, challenging the
government's decision to abandon the multi-billion-dollar
The plebiscite will be seen as a test of public support for
the policies of rightist Prime Minister Boiko Borisov ahead of a
July election, even though high turnout requirements mean the
result of the nuclear referendum is not likely to be binding.
Only 9.34 percent of the voters in the Balkan country had
cast a ballot by 1 p.m. (1100 GMT), six hours before the polling
stations were to close, official data showed. Analysts said the
apparent voter apathy was mainly due to lack of expert
information on the cost, benefits and need for a new plant.
Borisov, already struggling to revive a lackluster economy,
cancel led the construction of the 2,000-megawatt plant at
Belene in March, saying the Balkan country could not afford to
foot the bill, estimated at more than 10 billion euros ($13.5
Bulgaria's allies in Brussels and Washington also opposed
the project, fearing it would deepen the country's economic and
political dependence on Russia. Moscow offered to finance the
plant, which would have been built by its Atomstroyexport.
But opinion polls suggested two-thirds of people who said
they intended to vote would choose to press on with the plant,
many of them hoping it would rein in electricity prices, create
jobs and help make Bulgaria an energy hub for southeast Europe.
"Bulgaria needs a new nuclear power plant. I do not want my
kids to pay high electricity bills and that's what will happen
if we give up the construction of the Belene plant," engineer
Georgi Avramov, 49, told Reuters ahead of the vote.
While the economy has emerged from a deep recession, it is
growing only slowly and many voters are frustrated Bulgaria
still trails other ex-communist members of the European Union,
with wealth per capita less than half the bloc's average.
Analysts said a strong vote in favor of Belene would be an
embarrassment for Borisov, a former bodyguard who has made
little progress in his promises to root out corruption since he
came to power in 2009.
Unpopular austerity measures imposed by Borisov's ruling
centre-right GERB party have already narrowed its lead over
opposition Socialists - who called for the referendum - ahead of
parliamentary elections in July.
"If we get a strong 'pro-Belene' vote as expected, even
though the results are likely to be invalid, we would already
have a serious political issue on which Borisov will have to act
very carefully," said Gallup International political analyst
The result of the referendum, which asked whether new
nuclear power plant should be built and not about the use of
nuclear power in general, will only be valid if 4.35 million out
of the 6.9 million eligible voters take part - a figure analysts
say will be almost impossible to reach.
If 20 percent of voters participate and half of them vote in
favour of Belene, the issue will go to parliament for a final
Bulgaria has an operational 2,000 megawatt nuclear power
plant at Kozloduy and has hired U.S. company Westinghouse to
draw up plans to add another 1,000 MW unit at the site.
The new plant at Belene, on the River Danube, was also
opposed by environmentalists, who said it would be built near an
earthquake-prone area, and by rights groups who said the
high-cost project would encourage corruption in the EU's poorest
($1 = 0.7421 euros)
(Additional reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Mark