Bulgarians are voting Sunday in parliamentary elections with no party expected to win a majority to form a government, fueling fears about more political and economic instability in the country.
The 6.9 million eligible voters are choosing between the candidates of 36 parties. Voter apathy is widespread in a campaign that has also been overshadowed by an illegal wiretapping scandal and turnout is expected to be under 50 percent.
Recent opinion polls suggested the center-right party, which led the previous government, and its main challenger, the Socialists, were running neck-and-neck, with no clear winner in sight.
Bulgaria has been led by a caretaker government since the resignation in February of Boiko Borisov, who guided his Citizens for Bulgaria's European Development party to victory in 2009, but stepped down amid sometimes violent protests against poverty, high utility bills and corruption.
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.
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.
Borisov, a former top police officer and bodyguard of Bulgaria's last communist dictator Todor Zhivkov and the former king and ex-Prime Minister Simeon Saxcoburggotski, has seen his support declining as he was unable to turn around the living standards for Bulgarians.
Six years after Bulgaria's entry into the European Union, the Balkan state of 7.3 million remains the bloc's poorest member.
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 joining the EU would bring them a better life. Now, more than 22 percent of the people live below the official poverty line.
According to official statistics, the unemployment rate is 12 percent, but experts suggest that the real rate is more than 18 percent.
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.
On Saturday, prosecutors stormed a printing house and seized 350,000 ballots that were printed over the legally fixed number and ready to be distributed for use in the elections.
More than 250 international observers will be monitoring Sunday's election.