By Tsvetelia Tsolova
SOFIA, May 12 (Reuters) - Bulgarians voted on Sunday in an election marred by suspicions of rigging, with expectations of a close result that is likely to prolong uncertainty in the European Union's poorest country.
The rightist GERB party, which resigned after violent demonstrations over poverty and corruption in February, is running neck-and-neck with the Socialists. That raises the possibility that neither might be able to form a coalition and could ultimately mean a new election.
Six years after Bulgaria joined the European Union, disaffection with the political elite is widespread in the country of 7.3 million. Unemployment is close to an eight-year high and one in four lives below the poverty line.
On the eve of the parliamentary election, state security officers seized 350,000 illegal ballot papers, increasing fears of rigging in the Balkan country, notorious for graft and organised crime.
Socialist leader Sergei Stanishev called the discovery an 'unprecedented conspiracy against democracy' but President Rosen Plevneliev, an independent who has GERB's backing, told reporters that nobody would be able to get away with cheating.
A recent survey found that 12 percent of Bulgarians were willing to sell their votes. Because of worries over the process, five parties - not including GERB - have hired an Austrian company to carry out a parallel vote count.
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.
GERB pledges to keep debts under control and maintain economic stability, winning favour from investors, while the Socialists say they will spend more, creating jobs and lifting growth above the one percent expected this year.
Wary of staging big events because of the public anger, politicians have kept campaigning relatively low profile. The activists who brought down the GERB government plan protests after polls close.
'People are poor, people are discouraged,' said Rumen Blagoev, 62, a retired policeman in Sofia. He planned to vote Socialist.
Supporters of the GERB party, led by heavily built former bodyguard Boiko Borisov, praise it for building schools and motorways.
'I think that GERB needs another four years to finish what it started,' said Snezhana Georgieva, a teacher voting in Sofia
Under GERB, Bulgaria has kept one of the lowest debt levels in the EU to maintain a currency peg to the euro, but its opponents say that has constrained growth in the country where the average monthly wage is 400 euros ($520).
GERB has also suffered political damage from a wiretapping scandal.
But with a recent opinion poll giving it 24 percent to 23.6 percent for the Socialists, GERB could still emerge as the largest party.
That would give it first chance to form a government, possibly in alliance with nationalist Attack and other small right of centre parties.
An interim government, appointed by the president and with limited powers, will stay in place until the new one is formed.
Some 6.9 million Bulgarians can vote in over 11,600 voting sections at home and abroad. Exit polls are expected at 8 p.m. (1700 GMT) and partial official results will be available early on Monday.
(Additional reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Matthew Tostevin) Keywords: BULGARIA ELECTION/
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