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Nuclear

Low voter turnout defeats Bulgarian energy referendum

The majority of Bulgarians who went to polling stations voted in favor of the nuclear energy referendum. However, the ballots have been declared invalid due to low voter turnout.

Of the estimated 7 million registered voters in Bulgaria, only about 20 percent participated in the Sunday referendum. The threshold required a turnout of 60 percent to make the result valid.

The ballot sought to end a dispute where to develop nuclear energy facilities. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's right-wing conservative party supports the expansion of an existing plant at Kozloduy through more generators. By contrast, opposition rival Sergey Stanishev's Socialists want work to be resumed at a different plant in Belene, a project which the prime minister had put on hold last year due to expenses.

Following the exit polls, the opposing political parties quickly called the results a defeat for their respective opponents.

"I want to thank [Socialist Party leader Sergey] Stanishev. By organizing this referendum he put a final cross on the Belene project," the prime minister told reporters late on Sunday.

But Stanishev deemed the outcome "a huge personal defeat" for the prime minister, as the majority of the votes cast favored the Belene project.

Sunday's outcome does not signal the end of the dispute, a political analyst told the news agency Reuters.

"The result clearly puts pressure on the government. The low turnout however indicates there are no clear winners and we will be facing a serious stalemate after the July election," said Kiril Avramov, a political analyst with New Bulgarian University.

Parliamentary elections are to be held in six months, where the nuclear energy question could cause a problem for Prime Minister Borisov.

Though the formulation of the question on the referendum ballot was simple ("Should nuclear energy be developed in Bulgaria through construction of a new nuclear power plant?"), some analysts had argued prior to the outcome that registered voters weren't qualified to answer the question on the ballot in the first place, which was formulated simply:

People "don't know what's being asked," political analyst Ivan Krastev told the AFP news agency. "You cannot ask people to give an expert opinion on a business project ...This makes the poll absurd," he said.

Work on the Belene plant first began in the 1980s but was discontinued in the 1990s. It was subsequently restarted and then quashed by the right-wing government of Prime Minister Borisov, saying the country could not afford the estimated 10-billion-euros ($13.5 billion) needed to complete the project.

kms/lw (dpa, AFP, Reuters)