Shattered EU dreams at heart of Bulgarian election _ but voters see few solutions

The big theme of Bulgaria's parliamentary elections this weekend: mounting frustration over the widening gap between the giddy hopes linked to EU membership and today's sobering reality. But few expect things to get any better after the ballot — and the same discredited center-right party is likely to come out on top as voters see no good alternative.

Voter apathy is widespread in a campaign that has also been overshadowed by an illegal wiretapping scandal; turnout Sunday is expected to come under 50 percent.

Six years after Bulgaria's entry into the European Union, the Balkan state of 7.3 million remains the bloc's poorest member. For many, the European dream means buying a one-way plane ticket west. Nearly 1.5 million, mostly young and well-educated Bulgarians have moved to richer EU nations since the fall of communism in 1989.

Bulgaria has been led by a caretaker government since the resignation in February of Boiko Borisov, who guided his center-right party to victory in 2009 but stepped down amid sometimes violent protests against poverty, high utility bills and corruption. Some political observers said Borisov's resignation could be seen as a positive gesture toward the protesters and strengthen his Citizens for Bulgaria's European Development party. The party has a slight edge over the opposition Socialists in polls.

But the government has steadily lost public support amid the country's worst economic downturn in a decade. Austerity measures designed to reduce public debt have been unpopular. They include curbing state spending on social programs such as health care and education.

Many Bulgarians feel squeezed by low wages — the lowest in the EU at 400 euros ($524) a month — and relentless inflation. They feel betrayed by promises that were made that joining the EU would bring them a better life. Now, more than 22 percent of the people live below the official poverty line.

"I want politicians to pay more attention to the needs of ordinary people than to their own wealth," complained 68-year-old retiree Draga Velikova.

According to official statistics, the unemployment rate is 12 percent, but experts suggest that the real rate is over 18 percent.

A recent study by the Bulgarian Industrial Association shows that investment in the country has declined by 79 percent in the last five years, and that nearly half of enterprises have virtually stopped working.

Criticism by Brussels over a lax fight against corruption and organized crime has left Bulgaria outside the passport-free travel Schengen zone, and plans to join the euro currency are on hold.

For many, the solution is to sweep aside a political establishment they believe to be corrupt.

"The leaders of all political parties that have ruled the country in the last 23 years should step down and give a chance to new untainted people to clean up the corrupt system," said Georgi Vasilev, a 28-year-old construction worker.

In a sign of the prevalent despair, six people set themselves on fire this year, and five died of their burns.

The election campaign has been marred by revelations of illegal wiretapping of politicians, with prosecutors alleging that former Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov was responsible for illegally eavesdropping on political opponents during his term.

Tsvetanov, who is running for Parliament in Sunday's elections and therefore has immunity under Bulgarian law, has denied any wrongdoing in the growing scandal.

The scandal deepened as wiretaps leaked in the media revealed that Borisov, the former prime minister, allegedly had summoned Sofia's chief prosecutor to discuss details of the bribery probe, leading to suspicions of government interference.

Opinion polls suggest that the eavesdropping scandal has further eroded support for the former ruling party. It is expected to come out on top, although it may not have sufficient votes to form a government on its own — and has said it won't join a coalition.

The latest poll conducted by the Afis agency suggests that that 31.6 percent of voters would support Borisov's party, while the Socialists would gather 28.3 percent. No margin of error was provided, but polls of this type in Bulgaria usually have a margin of error of 3 percent.

With up to five other parties expected to enter the 240-seat parliament, formation of a stable government may prove difficult — and fuel instability in a country that is already on a downward economic spiral.

Allegations of vote-rigging that have accompanied elections in the past prompted five major former opposition parties to seek an independent vote count; the first such count since 1990 will be conducted by the Austrian agency SORA. Over 250 international observers will be monitoring Sunday's election in which some 6.9 million Bulgarians are eligible to vote.