SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) - Bulgarians on Sunday cast their ballots in a general election - the fourth in 18 months - marked by a raging war nearby, political instability, and economic hardships in the European Union's poorest member.
Surveys before the vote suggest that up to eight parties could muster the 4% threshold to enter a fragmented parliament where populist and pro-Russia groups could increase their representation.
Turnout is expected to be low because of voter apathy and disillusionment with politicians unable to cobble together a viable government coalition.
The early election comes after a fragile coalition led by pro-Western Prime Minister Kiril Petkov lost a no-confidence vote in June. He claimed afterward that Moscow used "hybrid war" tactics to bring the government down as it refused to pay gas bills in rubles and ordered an expulsion of Russian diplomats from Bulgaria.
A low turnout favors three-time former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov's GERB party, which is likeliest to finish first because it can still count on a loyal base despite a further erosion in support.
After casting his vote on Sunday, Borissov told reporters that Bulgaria needs to clearly position itself on Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine.
"With this, aggression, with this war with a clear aggressor in the face of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin - (I have) nothing against the Russian people - with this farce with the referendums, Bulgaria must be very clear, categorical, and precise about its place in the European Union and NATO," he said, adding that Bulgari's entry into the eurozone should be the first and most important task.
Still, the predicted percentage won't be enough for Borissov's party to form a one-party government, and the chances for a GERB-led coalition are slim as it is blamed for corruption by most opponents.
Kiril Petkov, leader of the We Continue the Change party, rejected recent polls as questionable and voiced confidence that the vote will yield positive results for his party.
"After this election, we will make a coalition with the Bulgarian people," Petkov told reporters after casting his ballot.
"Today's election is very important. The choice is between going back to the years of transition or to break with this period once and for all and heading to a new prosperous and reformed Bulgaria. I believe that all Bulgarians today will make the choice for Bulgaria to move forward," Petkov said.
Many Bulgarians share pro-Russia sentiments, which provides a fertile soil for aggressive Kremlin propaganda in the Balkan country.
The war in Ukraine was among the main topics in this campaign and calls by the leader of the pro-Russia party Vazrazhdane, Kostadin Kostadinov, for "full neutrality" of Bulgaria in the war, or calls to renegotiate relations with the EU, are attracting many voters.
The latest opinion polls predict that Vazrazhdane would gain 12.8% of the votes, up from 4.9% at the previous election.
"After these elections Bulgaria will have two options for the future - it will either radically change its path of development and will have a chance for survival, or 'God save Bulgaria,'" Kostadinov said after casting his vote.