Bobov Dol: Forced to survive on the minimum wage in Bulgaria of 340 leva (174 euros, $222) a month, Maya Ivanova is more than ready to sell her vote in Sunday`s general election, even for food.
"Who would not take 50 leva nowadays when the misery is dire? Even if they offer me 20 leva ($13) I would take it," the 51-year-old Roma woman told AFP in the mining town of Bobov Dol.
"But they only give us Roma a meatball and two slices of bread. It`s the organisers who take the money," she said, ahead of the October 5 vote.
According to numerous studies and even the government, selling votes -- for money, food or firewood -- is common in the European Union`s poorest country a quarter of a century after communism. So is intimidation.
The average monthly salary is the equivalent of 400 euros and one household in five lives below the poverty line. In a recent survey, 69 percent of respondents called the situation "unbearable".
"Our studies show that six percent of the voters say they have sold their vote and another six percent say that they would do under certain conditions," said Antony Galabov from anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.
"The people do not sell their votes for the sport of it, they have been pushed to the wall," Galabov said.
"In the Roma ghettos, people are massively dependent on local money lenders whom they can never repay in full. Parties often contact them to ensure a certain number of votes," explained Vanya Nusheva, an expert at the Sofia-based Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS).
An IRIS study stated: "A certain number of votes for this party is expected from a neighbourhood or a company. If someone fails to follow the instructions, everyone gets punished -- companies by sanctions, people by threats and beatings."Bobov Dol is a case in point.
Ahead of EU elections in May, hidden camera footage by private television channel Nova showed managers instructing miners whom to vote for if they wanted to keep their jobs.
"At election time it`s always like that... the usual swindle," a 40-year-old miner and father of four, declining to give his name, says with a wink when asked if miners have been pressured again.
His hands black with coal, he says he is rarely paid regularly or in full and buys food on credit since he only received 300 leva in his last pay packet. But he denies selling his vote.
Inside the mine itself, owned by a Bulgarian tycoon, the posters of only one party, a new populist formation, are visible on the way to the lifts that plunge 500 metres (1,640 feet) down.
"It`s always the same: our husbands and sons get told at work whom the family should vote for," one of two women tell AFP at Bobov Dol`s market, afraid to give their names.
Bulgaria`s government, repeatedly taken to task by Brussels over corruption, says it is aware of the problem.
"It is not a question of money at all sometimes," interior ministry commissioner Rumen Bogoev told a recent roundtable discussion.
"Managers themselves are often subjected to blackmail by political parties who tell them that their workers should vote in a certain way if they want the company to have orders and stay open," he said.Most people who have been pressured or paid to vote refuse to testify in court, tying the hands of the investigators, deputy chief prosecutor Borislav Sarafov said.
After the last general election a year ago there was just one suspended sentence. Several hundred other cases were dropped.
The Bobov Dol incident also failed to result in a single conviction, despite an uproar.
This time the interior ministry is taking preventive measures by keeping a close eye on 1,000 suspected organisers of vote-buying, criminal police chief Georgy Arabadzhiev said.
Parties are also obliged to state on all their election leaflets and posters: "Vote-buying and selling is illegal". But whether such measures will have an effect is far from certain.