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Bulgarian Elections Overshadowed by Reports of 'Vote Buying'

Parliamentary elections have begun in Bulgaria amid concerns of corruption and reports of vote buying. The election follows a European Union suspension of crucial aid over corruption concerns.

Bulgarians began voting for a new parliament the European Union hopes will tackle widespread corruption and economic hardship, caused by the global financial downturn.

Opinion polls suggest most voters will punish the Socialist-led coalition government because it has been plagued by financial scandals.

The center-right opposition party of Sofia Mayor Boiko Borisov is expected to receive most votes, although not enough to gain a majority in the 240-seat parliament.

Mayor Borisov has pledged to attack corruption quickly and to jail corrupt officials and organized crime bosses. But he faces an uphill battle as officials have admitted that even votes are for sale in the poorest EU nation.

Bulgaria's embattled Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev has urged Bulgarians not to sell their votes and warned parties and vote buyers they would be punished if found guilty.

Mr. Stanishev says these disgusting practices inflict terrible scars on our democracy. He adds the most scary thing is that in return for a pathetically small amount of money, you put your own future and that of your children and families at stake.

Bulgarian political parties have been accusing each other of offering money, food and other basic commodities to mainly poor communities and minorities such as gypsies, also known as Roma, in exchange for votes.

Bulgaria has doubled the maximum prison term to six years for those who organize vote-buying schemes and five years for vote buyers.

Officials said security forces also launched a campaign across the Balkan country to prevent vote buying, confiscating hundreds of identity cards, lists of names, computers and cash, and detaining at least five people.

Bulgaria is under pressure to tackle organized crime by the European Union, which froze $800 million in crucial aid as a punishment for endemic corruption.

About $160 million was recently made available for a motorway project and technical assistance, but Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Meglena Plugchieva says her country has no access to other crucial aid programs.

"We have not fulfilled our engagements and our homework," said Meglena Plugchieva. "And we have to continue with the efforts. We have to know that it is very important to be very careful with the money. And I can ensure you that at the moment there are big chances especially at the management of the EU funds in Bulgaria [meaning] more simplification, more transparency and a good control system."

There have also been concerns over political extremism in the country of nearly eight-million people. Prime Minister Stanishev has urged politicians not to use Sunday's vote to create ethnic tensions in Bulgaria, which has large Turkish and Roma minorities.

In his words "after the elections, we all have to live again together in Bulgaria." First election results are expected by early Monday.