- Associated Press - Sunday, October 23, 2011

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Bulgaria’s presidential election will go to a runoff because none of the candidates garnered more than 50 percent of the vote, according to an exit poll.

Bulgaria’s economic woes have been the key campaign issue, with the opposition accusing incumbents of stalling key reforms. Besides the vote for a new president, heated mayoral battles took place in many of the 264 municipalities.

Nearly 40 percent of the votes Sunday were cast for ruling center-right presidential candidate Rosen Plevneliev against about 30 percent for socialist contender Ivailo Kalfin, according to results from an exit poll conducted by the Alpha Research agency.

A runoff will be held Oct. 30 because none of the candidates garnered more than 50 percent. 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.

With an unprecedented decision, the Central Election Commission extended by one hour the time for voting, saying that there still were many voters lined up at polling stations. The move was sharply criticized by opposition politicians, who believe it was an attempt by the incumbents to manipulate the vote. They did not elaborate but said that they could contest the vote.

Voter turnout was at more than 50 percent, the election commission said.

There were reports about various irregularities, including alleged vote-buying. International observers already have voiced concerns about the fairness of the elections, and any evidence of 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 because of what it called widespread graft.

“There are fears about large-scale vote-buying and manipulations in the counting of the ballots,” the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitoring team said before the vote.

Graft watchdog Transparency International predicted that up to 20 percent of the voters in the EU’s poorest country could be persuaded to sell their ballots.

Bulgaria’s current socialist president, Georgi Parvanov, has served two five-year terms and was barred from seeking re-election.

Mr. Parvanov admitted he has not succeeded in his quest for national unification, and he pointed out that the current campaign has gone too far in creating confrontations that should have been dealt with a long time ago in people’s minds.

“I hope elections will bring about a better future for the country, as well as for every single Bulgarian,” he said.

Mr. Plevneliev, a former construction minister, is a 47-year-old technocrat supported by the governing GERB party of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov. An entrepreneur before entering politics in 2009, Mr. Plevneliev has pledged to reduce the country’s budget deficit and pursue business-friendly policies.

“I know what to do about Bulgaria, the regions and the economy so it can be a respectable member of Europe, a respectable member of the world,” Mr. Plevneliev said after casting his ballot.

A victory by Mr. Plevneliev in the runoff could increase the chances that Mr. Borisov’s minority center-right government pushes ahead with painful economic reforms in a country with an average monthly salary of 350  euros ($485) and 11.7 percent unemployment. One labor union estimates that 20 percent of Bulgarian families are impoverished.

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