Bulgarians vote Sunday for the third time this year with little hope that the latest general election will finally bring a stable government to fight the country's deadliest coronavirus wave.
"We must all vote but I'm also afraid that it will all be in vain… I don't have much hope," 62-year-old Milena Stoyanova told AFP on the eve of the election, summing up the general gloom.
While many said they won't bother to go to the polling stations, 35-year-old finance expert Petar Angelov said he'll "definitely vote… for change" and "a better future".
After two previous elections in April and July returned fractured parliaments where parties failed to cobble together a coalition, will there be agreement now?
"I hope that political leaders learnt their lesson and that this will push them to negotiate," New Bulgarian University political science professor Antony Todorov told AFP.
"We just cannot not have a government," said Boryana Dimitrova of the Alpha Research institute, highlighting the need to tackle the worst Covid-19 wave raging in the country.
Just over 23 percent of Bulgaria's population of 6.9 million people is fully vaccinated, the lowest rate across the European Union.
The interim administration failed to impose stricter measures and stop new infections and deaths from spiralling.
'Feeling of chaos'
With around 200 people dying each day in short-staffed hospitals, Bulgaria's death rate this week was among the highest in the world.
"There's this feeling of chaos," Todorov said.
Uncertainty coupled with rising electricity and gas prices has hit the economy, with the European Commission this week lowering its annual growth forecast for Bulgaria.
The conservative GERB party of three-time premier Boyko Borisov "exploits this feeling very well" with election posters calling for "Order in the chaos", Todorov said.
But Borisov, who faced massive anti-graft protests last year and multiple revelations about alleged past misuse of public funds, is seen as an "unacceptable" partner by most other parties.
Observers say he is unlikely to find enough support to return to power for a fourth term.
Dimitrova said voters were "inclined to vote for the parties of change, which they consider capable of forming a government".
Most hopes appear pinned on a pair of Harvard-educated former businessmen — Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev — whose movement We Continue the Change was only formed in September but counts on coming in second and being able to unite others in a broader anti-Borisov front.
Their goal of eradicating corruption is gaining support in a country long notorious as the EU's most graft-prone member.
The party now polls neck-and-neck with the Socialists with around 16 percent of the votes.
Petkov and Vassilev said having an elected government was "of vital importance" and that they were ready for "compromise" to end the country's worst political crisis since the end of Communism.
"They are very enthusiastic," Dimitrova said, adding, however, that the two had little experience in politics and might end up leading an "unstable" coalition.
Their potential partners had already failed to reach an agreement on forming a government after the April and July votes.
A first-round presidential election will be held along with the parliamentary elections, with outgoing Socialist-backed president Rumen Radev running for a second five-year term as an independent.
Although Radev is a clear favourite, analysts expect the race to go into a run-off on November 21.