By Angel Krasimirov
SOFIA, May 12 (Reuters) - Bulgarians voted on Sunday in an election forced by protests over poverty and corruption, with expectations of a close result that could leave the poorest European Union country without a working government.
The rightist GERB party, which resigned after violent demonstrations in February, is running neck-and-neck with the Socialists. GERB pledges to keep debts under control, while the Socialists say they will spend more and create jobs.
But six years after Bulgaria joined the European Union, disaffection with the political elite as a whole is widespread in a country of 7.3 million where unemployment is close to an eight-year high.
On the eve of the election state security officers seized 350,000 illegal ballot papers.
The activists who brought down the GERB government plan protests for polling day and a fifth of voters are still undecided which party to back in the parliamentary election.
'I think that GERB needs another four years to finish what it started,' said Snezhana Georgieva, a teacher, as she cast her vote in a Sofia neighbourhood.
'It is easy to see what the party did in the past years - it built many kindergartens, playing grounds for our children and some nice motorways, of course.'
But Rumen Blagoev, 62, a retired policeman in Sofia, said Bulgaria had been badly governed for 20 years and he planned to vote Socialist.
'People are poor, people are discouraged,' he said
While the euro zone has been preoccupied by its debt crisis, the troubles in Bulgaria show the risks of growing political and economic upheavals on the European Union's fringes.
Under GERB, Bulgaria has kept one of the lowest debt levels in the EU to maintain a currency peg to the euro, but the economy is expected to grow at only about 1 percent this year and the average monthly wage is 400 euros ($520).
Led by heavily built former bodyguard Boiko Borisov, GERB has also suffered political damage from a wiretapping scandal.
But with a recent opinon poll giving it 24 percent to 23.6 percent for the Socialists, GERB could still emerge as the Balkan country's largest party.
That would give it first chance to form a government, possibly in alliance with nationalist Attack and the pro-business Bulgaria for the Citizens, led by former EU commissioner Meglena Kuneva.
The Socialists have previously formed a partnership with the ethnic Turkish MRF and could also seek Kuneva's backing.
'I do not vote regularly but now Bulgaria desperately needs change,' said Marin Boyanov, an entrepreneur.
'As many people, I am really fed up with the ones who were in power in the last three and a half years. I voted for the BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party) because it has a real program that aims to improve people's lives.'
But an election characterised more by mud-slinging than policy debate could make it harder for anyone to form a coalition.
Although business is deeply unhappy with corruption in Bulgaria, Borisov's record of keeping borrowing in check wins him favour from investors.
The last time a Socialist government was in power, between 2005 and 2009, Bulgaria went through a credit boom, bust and deep recession.
Whoever wins, there is little room for any government to spend more.
'An undercurrent of discontent persists. So far, the major demands of the protesters - for lower energy prices - have not been fully addressed and unemployment, low incomes, and political corruption are also being highlighted,' said Otilia Simkova, an analyst with political risk consultancy Eurasia.
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Angus MacSwan) Keywords: BULGARIA ELECTION/
(firstname.lastname@example.org)(Reuters Messaging: Reuters Messaging: email@example.com)
Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013. All rights reserved.
The copying, republication or redistribution of Reuters News Content, including by framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Thomson Reuters.