SOFIA, Bulgaria — Bulgaria's president on Thursday called for a new political culture that would prevent citizens being "robbed" and "lied to" as he named an election date of May 12 to try to stem a surge of popular discontent.
Prime Minister Boiko Borisov quit last week after nationwide protests against high electricity prices — the final straw to many citizens in the European Union's (EU's) poorest country, who have begun to despair of any improvement in living standards or governance.
While Bulgaria has avoided the debt or deficit problems of many of its peers, maintaining a currency peg to the euro, economic growth is sluggish and unemployment has risen to almost 12 percent.
Demonstrations by tens of thousands of Bulgarians have already forced some concessions including a promise that electricity firms will be forced to cut prices by 8 percent. Whoever wins the election will be under considerable pressure to spend in order to raise a standard of living that is less than half the EU average.
"Our compatriots make it clear they want simple things — they want decent politicians, they don't want to be robbed, they do not want to be lied to and they want to live good lives," President Rosen Plevneliev told parliament.
He said an interim government, which will probably be appointed next week, would aim for stability by sticking to the 2013 budget, which foresees a deficit of 1.3 percent of GDP, and implementing previous commitments such as a 9 percent increase in pensions from April.
The president said he wanted the next parliament to focus on passing strong laws against monopolies — one of the protesters' demands — and full liberalization of the electricity market, to give consumers greater choice.
He also urged political parties to include more ordinary citizens in their electoral lists.
Six years after joining the EU, Bulgaria trails far behind other members. It is struggling to use EU money to overhaul outdated infrastructure, or to tackle rampant corruption and rampant organized crime.
Many protesters have criticized Bulgaria's whole political class, which they say acts in its own interests and does not help ordinary people.
The average wage is just 400 euros a month and pension less than half that, so electricity prices — although among the EU's lowest — bite particularly deep, particularly in winter when many people use it to heat their homes. Some Bulgarians heat only one room of their apartments and live in that throughout the winter, when temperatures can fall to -15 Celsius (5 F).
Demonstrators have attacked energy company offices and three people have set themselves on fire.
Borisov's outgoing government did not make clear how the promised cut in electricity prices would be paid for, but it has alarmed investors by saying it would revoke the distribution license of the Czech utility CEZ.
CEZ and the other two distributors, Austria's EVN and the Czech firm Energo-Pro, say they have done nothing wrong.
Support for Borisov's rightist GERB party has fallen over the last year, and it is now neck-and-neck with the opposition Socialists (BSP). However, polls suggest neither has enough support for an overall majority, and whichever wins will have to try to assemble a coalition to form a working government.
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.