Bulgaria's presidential race to be decided in runoff due to low turnout

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The Independent Online

The incumbent Bulgarian president Georgi Parvanov will face ultranationalist leader Volen Siderov in a runoff following the lowest turnout in a presidential election since the fall of communism, exit polls indicated yesterday.

Despite winning more than 60 per cent of the votes against some 20 per cent for his nearest rival, Parvanov will go to a runoff next Sunday because voter turnout was only 38 per cent - below the 50 per cent required for a first-round victory - according to an exit poll conducted by the National Center for Public Opinion Surveys.

In a first reaction after the vote, Parvanov thanked the people who voted for him for "the convincing result" and said he was not worried about the run-off against Siderov.

"When one has such a ratio (between the top two candidates), there is nothing to worry about," he told reporters.

"Siderov's result gives absolutely no grounds to claim that Bulgaria has been swept by some kind of an ultranationalist wave," analyst Andrei Raychev said. "Neither his nationalism, nor his racism or his clearly fascist views are what his voters want. ... Simply those unhappy with the current situation made him their first choice."

Unhappy with the political elite's unfulfilled promises of better living conditions and frustrated with the tough economic and social reforms, many voters did not bother to go to the polls, resulting in the lowest turnout in 15 years.

In the first post-communist presidential elections in 1992 the turnout was 76 per cent, while it was 41.5 per cent in the first round of the election that brought Parvanov into office five years ago.

In a Sofia park, where people enjoyed an unusually warm autumn day, many said they did not intend to vote.

"It will make absolutely no difference - whoever wins, Bulgaria will remain the same," said Katya Mileva, a 32-year-old mother-of-two. "Moreover, we already secured the most important thing, our European Union entry."

Bulgaria is set to become an EU member on Jan. 1.

In the runoff, there is no minimum turnout requirement and whoever wins more than half of votes cast is the new president.

Siderov, 50, had focused his campaign on a wave of disillusionment among the public with mainstream politicians.

"I voted for a president who will have strength, courage and ambition to dismiss all corrupt politicians," he told reporters Sunday after voting in Sofia.

Often compared to France's Jean-Marie Le Pen, Siderov has enjoyed growing popularity with his anti-minority talk and calls for revision of certain privatization deals and renegotiating EU entry conditions - views that some have branded "Nazi-like" and "anti-European."

The presidency is a largely figurehead position, while the real power rests with the prime minister and parliament. Still, the president carries moral authority and legislative veto power.

Parvanov, the 49-year-old former Socialist Party leader, would become the first president in post-Communist Bulgaria to win re-election. In 2001, he defeated his predecessor Petar Stoyanov in a runoff.

During Parvanov's presidency, Bulgaria became a NATO member in 2004, and got the green light for joining the EU next year.