Bulgarians began voting in a parliamentary election on Sunday that will decide whether long-serving Prime Minister Boyko Borissov wins a new four-year mandate despite persistent concerns about corruption in the European Union's poorest member state.
Opinion polls suggest Borissov's center-right GERB will again be the largest party, with 28-29% of the vote, but will fall short of a majority and may struggle to build a stable coalition in a more fractured parliament.
That could hamper Bulgaria's ability to tap effectively the EU's $884 billion Recovery Fund to help rebuild the bloc's economy after the coronavirus pandemic.
Borissov, 61, an ex-fireman in power almost without a break since 2009, has sought to showcase his successes in modernizing Bulgaria's creaking infrastructure during a low-key campaign held as COVID-19 hit the country.
"We showed what we have achieved," Borissov said after casting his ballot, thanking his allies in the conservative European People's Party for their support.
He also thanked the European Commission, the EU executive, for 1.3 million additional COVID-19 vaccine shots, which the country will receive in the second quarter.
More than 6.7 million Bulgarians are eligible to vote, but pollsters expect a low turnout because of voters' concerns over COVID-19 and a slow vaccine roll-out.
Bulgaria recorded an average of about 4,000 new coronavirus cases daily in March and has the second highest coronavirus-related death rate in the EU after Hungary, according to scientific online publication Our World in Data.
Although hospitals are full, the government eased some lockdown restrictions before the vote, allowing restaurants to serve customers outdoors and cinemas and gyms to operate at 30% capacity. Kindergartens will reopen on Monday.
Borissov's government has presided over a 36% increase in the average monthly salary to $882, has kept public debt low, and secured entry to the 'waiting room' for joining the euro currency.
But its failure to tackle endemic corruption and reform the judiciary brought thousands of protesters onto the streets for months during 2020.
The protesters accused Borissov of cozying up to local oligarchs and funneling EU aid to businesses close to GERB, allegations which he denies.
President Rumen Radev, who is a critic of Borissov but has a largely ceremonial role, says Bulgaria needs new faces and ideas.
The main opposition Socialists campaigned on restoring trust in state institutions and reducing poverty but have been hampered by internal squabbles and are expected to win 20-22% of the vote.
An anti-elite party led by TV host Slavi Trifonov looks set to finish third with 13%. Trifonov says he opposes any coalition with mainstream parties, raising the specter of a deadlocked parliament if his party performs well.
Trifonov’s party is closely followed by the ethnic Turkish MRF party.
Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up! Mafia Out!, boosted by the protests, are also expected to win seats. GERB's coalition partner, the nationalist VMRO party, is close to the 4% threshold, polls show.
Polls will close at 1700 UTC.