Thirsty Bulgaria gets set to vote

Severe shortages of water in Sofia are preoccupying Bulgarians as they prepare to vote tomorrow in their third national elections since the fall of Communism in 1990. Water rationing was introduced in the capital four weeks ago because of a prolo nged drought that has caused the Iskar reservoir, on Sofia's outskirts, almost to dry up.

Residents of Sofia and its suburbs now receive water supplies for only 24 hours every three days. Hot water will not be piped into apartment blocks in the city centre until next March.

Officials say that the reservoir has only 78 million cubic metres of water at the moment, instead of the 200 million that it needs to supply Sofia's 1.2 million people. A deputy health minister, Lubomir Kumanov, said there was a real danger that Sofia would be without water by the end of January.

If it seems extraordinary that a European capital should be short of water in mid-December, the picture for ordinary Bulgarians gets little better on other fronts. "The problems Bulgaria has with water today, it will have with electricity soon," said John Wilton, the World Bank's representative for Bulgaria.

Although some progress has been made in reforming Bulgaria's state-controlled economy, conditions for many people remain difficult, with unemployment running at about 17 per cent and annual inflation at 120 per cent. Some industrial workers go unpaid formonths.

The elections pit the Socialist Party, the offshoot of Bulgaria's former ruling Communists, against the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), the main non-Communist political movement of the last five years. Polls suggest that, as in Poland, Hungary and Lithuania, the former Communists could return to power in Bulgaria, taking 30 per cent of the vote compared with 20 to 25 per cent for the UDF. The government that resigned in September was made up of non-party technocrats but supported by the Socialists.

The former Communists, who say they are committed to market reforms, never disappearedfrom Bulgaria's political scene. They won an absolute majority in free elections in 1990 and have either formed or supported all but one of the country's governments since then.

The Movement for Rights and Freedom, a party representing Bulgaria's ethnic Turkish minority, is expected to finish third and may hold the balance of power in the 240-seat parliament.

Apart from economic hardships and the water problem, rising crime and corruption in the bureaucracy are among the main issues in the election.

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