If you vote in Bulgaria, you may win a Hyundai
To stave off a low turnout in Saturday's elections, voters are offered a car, cellphones, and computers.
SOFIA, BULGARIA — If a former king can't get out the vote in this Balkan nation, maybe a Hyundai Matrix will.
The new car is the grand prize in a lottery open only to eligible voters who head to the polls on Saturday. Runners-up will receive cell phones and computer equipment.
Fears of a low turnout on election day stem from the cynicism that's developed among Bulgarians about the country's progress. On the surface, Bulgaria appears to be doing well; the country became a NATO member last year and is scheduled to join the EU in 2007; economic growth is hovering around 5 percent.
But most voters are frustrated with incumbent prime minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Simeon II, the former king of Bulgaria, leads a party that won control of parliament in 2001 - more than 50 years after the communists ousted him from the throne.
Critics have focused their attacks on Simeon's campaign promise to improve the standard of living for regular people within 800 days of taking office. As Simeon's term comes to an end, a third of Bulgarians still live below the poverty line; average per capita income last year was only $1,500. With polls set to open, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) enjoys the most support among the electorate - 36 percent - while only 20 percent of voters support the incumbent.
Bulgarian political history is also working against the former king. No government since the fall of one-party rule in 1989 has been reelected. That's in part because every government has had to enact austerity measures that left them vulnerable to opponents. Now, however, with EU membership pending, many of the toughest changes have been completed. Bulgaria is slated to receive more than $3.6 billion in EU subsidies beginning in 2007.
"Whoever wins this election is going to benefit from the painful economic reforms done by the last two governments," says Ognian Shentov, chairman of the Center for the Study of Democracy, an independent Sofia think tank. "This is probably the last election in Bulgaria's transition period."
The BSP says it will crack down on corruption and organized crime by reforming the courts and prosecutors' offices. Not one high-level mafia boss has been tried and convicted in Bulgaria, despite regular shootouts between gangsters on the streets of Sofia. "This is a big problem for investment in Bulgaria," says Roumen Petkov, deputy chairman of the BSP. "They feel insecure about the judicial system here."
Among the BSP's most important supporters are the 1.3 million Bulgarians older than 65 who live on state-funded pensions. Simeon's belt-tightening budgets haven't gone down well with them. Pensioners also sympathize with the Socialists' rhetoric about recalling the 400 Bulgarian soldiers Simeon sent to aid US forces in Iraq. Thirteen Bulgarian soldiers have died in the war, and in May parliament voted to pull the troops out at the end of the year.
"All of these people have been living with socialism for most of their lives. Their parents told them that the USA was the enemy," says Younal Loufti, a member of parliament from the Movement for Rights and Freedom Party, a centrist party with a Turkish base.
The BSP also questions the decision to allow the US military to lease Bulgarian bases. The US plans to to renovate antiquated Warsaw Pact facilities. But many Bulgarians are skeptical of promises about new jobs, roads, and other improvements in the rural communities where the bases are located.