Sofia: Bulgarians voted on Sunday in Presidential and Municipal Elections that test the ruling centre-right party`s popularity and the EU nation`s ability to overcome concerns about vote-buying and corruption.
Voting started in over 11,000 polling stations country-wide where some 6.9 million of Bulgaria`s 7.4 million citizens can cast their ballots.
Bulgaria`s economic woes have been the key campaign issue, with the opposition accusing incumbents of stalling key reforms. The country will get a new president and heated mayoral battles are expected in many of the 264 municipalities.
International observers have already voiced concerns, however, about the fairness of Sunday`s elections, and any fraudulent voting could deal a blow to Bulgaria`s hopes of getting into Europe`s passport-free Schengen travel zone.
The EU so far has refused to include Bulgaria due to what it called widespread graft.
"There are fears about large-scale vote buying and manipulations in the counting of the ballots," the OSCE monitoring team said.
Graft watchdog Transparency International predicted that as many as 20 percent of the voters in the EU`s poorest country could be persuaded to sell their ballots.
Most power in Bulgaria rests with the prime minister and Parliament, but the president leads the armed forces and can veto legislation and sign international treaties.
Bulgaria`s current socialist President, Georgi Parvanov, has served two five-year terms and was barred from seeking re-election.
He is expected to be replaced by ex-construction minister Rosen Plevneliev, who is tipped by all polls as the front-runner with about 30 percent of the vote.
The 47-year-old technocrat is supported by the governing GERB party of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov. An entrepreneur before entering politics in 2009, Plevneliev has pledged to reduce the country`s budget deficit and pursue business-friendly policies.
A victory by Plevneliev could increase the chances that Borisov`s minority centre-right government pushes ahead with painful economic reforms in a country with an average monthly salary of EUR 350 (USD 485) and 11.7 percent unemployment. One labor union estimates that 20 percent of Bulgarian families are impoverished.
Plevneliev`s closest rivals — Ivailo Kalfin, 47, of the opposition Socialist Party, and independent Meglena Kuneva, 54, a former European Union commissioner — are expected to finish second and third.
But opinion polls have indicated that none of the 18 presidential candidates is likely to win outright, requiring a runoff on October 30.