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SOFIA: A vote on whether to build a second nuclear power plant in Bulgaria, the EU member’s first referendum since communism, looked set to fail yesterday because of insufficient turnout.
Exit polls showed that between 19.5 and 20.3 percent of voters cast ballots, a third of the roughly 60 percent needed for the result to be valid. Although the referendum question did not mention it explicitly, at stake was the 2,000-megawatt Belene power plant project on the Danube river in northern Bulgaria.
Severe financial constraints and a lack of foreign investors after the 2009 withdrawal of German energy giant RWE prompted Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s right-wing government to abandon the project last March.
The opposition Socialists initiated the referendum after Atomstroyexport, the state-owned Russian firm set to build Belene, filed a compensation claim for ¤1bn ($1.3bn).
The result of the vote, although likely invalid because of low turnout, was in support of reviving the project, with between 60 and 60.3 percent voting “yes” and between 39.7 and 40 percent voting “no”, the exit polls showed.
Many voters were either apathetic or did not feel qualified to make a decision amid confusion about the costs and Belene’s economic viability, analysts said.
People “don’t know what’s being asked,” political analyst Ivan Krastev said before the vote. “You cannot ask people to give an expert opinion on a business project.... This makes the poll absurd.”
Both the former communist Socialist party and Borisov’s GERB party however saw the referendum as an important popularity test before July general elections. A recent Alpha Research poll showed waning support for GERB at about 21 percent, still ahead of the Socialists on 18.5 percent — although the former communists’ popularity has been rising.
Both sides claimed victory in the referendum. “The Bulgarians once again demonstrated common sense, understanding that this issue does not even deserve their attention,” Borisov commented.