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EghtesadOnline: Bulgarians are voting in early parliamentary elections, with former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s Gerb party neck-and-neck with the Socialists in a contest that may strengthen Russia’s foothold in the region.

In the third snap vote in five years, polls opened at 7 a.m. and will close at 8 p.m. While affirming their commitment to the European Union, both Gerb and the Bulgarian Socialist Party have pledged to revive economic ties with Russia to assuage voters who feel let down by the bloc a decade after membership. The United Patriots, a nationalist alliance, is seen by both parties as a possible kingmaker in a ruling coalition, according to Bloomberg.

“It will be very difficult to form a government,” Stefan Georgiev, a political analyst at pollster Afis in Sofia, said by phone. “It may take long negotiations that are unlikely to achieve a stable majority. More likely, there will be a three-way coalition or a grand coalition, but no one wants to talk about it yet.”

Voter turnout at 1 p.m. was 25 percent, Central Electoral Commission spokeswoman Kamelia Neykova said by phone in Sofia.

Accused of meddling in elections from the U.S. to France, Russia is getting a warmer reception in Bulgaria, a NATO member of 7 million people that was dubbed the “16th Soviet republic” during the Cold War for its affinity to Moscow. The Socialists vow to end sanctions against President Vladimir Putin’s government. Talk of an alternative economic path resonates in the Black Sea nation, which ranks as the EU’s poorest member and remains dogged by graft, a worker exodus and migration worries. The vote is also stoking tensions with Turkey, which Bulgaria accuses of interfering to boost its influence.

Corruption, Pensions

The early election follows Borissov’s resignation as prime minister when a Gerb party candidate lost a presidential vote to Rumen Radev, a former Air Force chief backed by the Socialists. Bulgaria’s failure to tackle corruption has kept wages low and public services inefficient. It ranked the EU’s worst in graft by Transparency International. The anti-corruption Yes, Bulgaria party may not clear parliament’s 4 percent entry threshold.

“Parties pushing more aggressively for reforms and an anti-corruption drive are faring fairly poorly in the polls and might not enter parliament,” Ciprian Dascalu, chief economist for the Balkans at ING Groep NV in Bucharest, said in a report. “Quite a negative development.”

Gerb and the Socialists promise increases in wages and pensions. The Socialists plan to raise taxes for high-income earners and reduce taxes for families with children, while Gerb pledges to keep a 10 percent flat income tax and prudent management of public finances. Both parties rely on EU-funded infrastructure projects and rekindling Russian energy projects to boost the economy, which expanded 3.4 percent last year.

Predictable, Unified

“Tomorrow, Bulgaria should be stable, predictable and unified,” Borissov told reporters Sunday after casting his ballot in Sofia. “If we’re elected to rule, we’ll be discussing Turkey in the following days. Both Europe and Turkey need to make compromises to maintain order and peace. We’re the ones on the border with Turkey.”

Other possible partners in a ruling coalition may include the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which represents the ethnic Turks, and a new party, Will, of businessman Vesselin Mareshki, the owner of a pharmacy chain and petrol filling stations. The Reformers Bloc, Borissov’s junior coalition partner in the previous cabinet, may also exceed the 4 percent hurdle.

“I voted for change and security on the border and at home,” Socialist leader Kornelia Ninova told reporters in Sofia Sunday. “To have accessible education and health care and no pressure on small businesses.”

The United Patriots sparked controversy this week by blocking border crossings with Turkey and clashing with police in an effort to prevent Bulgarian expatriates coming to Bulgaria by buses to vote for a party linked to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Borissov fanned tensions by saying Turkey is stirring calls for autonomy in Bulgaria’s border regions. Ethnic Turks comprise 8 percent of the population.

Bulgaria’s benefits from the EU membership are clear. The country received 11 billion euros ($12 billion) of EU funds in 2007-2013 to improve highways and railroads, while household income doubled in the decade through 2016, according to the Sofia-based Institute for Market Economics. The EU buys two-thirds of Bulgaria’s exports, compared with 1.5 percent for Russia. About 49 percent of Bulgarians see the bloc positively.

Boyko Borissov Bulgaria elections Russia-Bulgaria relationship Bulgaria parliament