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Thursday September 23rd, 2021 8:56AM

Bulgaria's leader seeks 4th term amid pandemic, protests

By The Associated Press
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SOFIA, Bugaria (AP) — Bulgarians voted Sunday in a parliamentary election widely seen as a referendum on the country's center-right prime minister after months of anti-government protests and amid a surge in coronavirus infections.

Prime Minister Boyko Borissov is hoping to win his fourth term. The 61-year-old politician has led the populist GERB party since its founding in 2006 and has ruled Bulgaria with an iron grip for most of the last 11 years.

“I have always taken into account what the people decide ... Let the elections be honest,” Borissov was quoted as saying after he cast his ballot without reporters present due to pandemic restrictions.

Borissov has avoided contact with journalists since the protests started in July, instead relying on social media to broadcast his almost daily campaign stops at construction sites while promoting his party’s slogan: “Work, work, work.”

Support for Borrissov has eroded since thousands took to the streets and accused the government of being influenced by oligarchs, failing to eliminate graft and poverty and failing to overhaul the judicial system.

President Rumen Radev, a vocal critic of Borissov, urged Bulgarians to turn Sunday's election into the first step toward a return to laws and rules.

“I voted against the collapse of statehood, lawlessness and corruption and for a free, just and prosperous Bulgaria,” he said Sunday after voting.

Some 6.7 million eligible voters were electing 240 lawmakers.

Bulgaria, which joined NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007, has been repeatedly criticized for corruption and deficiencies in the rule of law and media freedom, but Borissov on Sunday trumpeted the country's ties with the West.

“The immense support we received from our counterparts in Europe shows the importance of a stable European government in Bulgaria,” he said.

The latest election polls suggested that while the vote may produce a fragmented parliament that will struggle to elect a new government, Borissov’s GERB will end up with the most seats. The polls showed the party 5-10 percentage points ahead of its main challenger, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, but far from gaining the absolute majority needed to govern alone.

The leader of the Socialists, Kornelia Ninova, said she voted for “reforms and stability,” and for “a social Bulgaria which won’t leave anyone alone in the crisis.”

Several smaller groups are expected to ride the anti-government sentiment to secure the 4% threshold required to enter parliament for the first time. One, led by a popular TV entertainer, is projected to place third.

Despite opposition criticism of the government's response to the pandemic, a lower turnout because of fears of infection and the absence of postal or proxy voting could benefit incumbent lawmakers. Turnout was nearly 38% at 5 p.m., lower than in previous elections.

Results from exit polling are to be announced after the polls close. Preliminary results are expected around midnight.

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