SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria's two main political parties were making their final attempts to woo frustrated voters before an election on Sunday that is likely to lead to a prolonged period of horse-trading to form a government.
Former bodyguard Boiko Borisov's center-right GERB was forced to resign in February after thousands of people took to the streets to protest against high utility bills, entrenched corruption and low living standards.
It is locked in a tight battle with its biggest rival, the Socialists, to lead the European Union's poorest country, but with a fifth of voters undecided, whichever party wins, it will be unlikely to be able to claim a strong, popular mandate.
Party leaders were gearing up for their last rallies after a low-key campaign in which GERB in particular has avoided high-profile events because of the protests. At least two protest leaders are planning polling day demonstrations.
A Gallup International poll put support for GERB at 24 percent and the Socialists at 23.6, indicating a likely struggle to form a government, which needs to use EU funds, tackle graft and organized crime to attract much need foreign investment.
If no group can form a majority, Bulgaria would head to a new election possibly in September and remain under an interim government, that has pledged fiscal stability but has limited powers to set policies or carry out reforms.
Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007 but still lags the rest of the bloc and its struggles show the risk of fraying democracy and vulnerable economies in fringe members as the euro zone focuses on its own financial crisis.
Many voters are uninspired by the choice on offer and a campaign that has focused more on mudslinging than presenting clear policies to create jobs and bolster living standards that are less than half the EU average.
"I really believed that the status quo can be changed but you see that it is not going to happen. I still hesitate over whether it is worth voting," said jobless Petar Haralampiev, 31.
Under GERB's government, Bulgaria has kept one of the lowest fiscal deficit and debt levels in the EU to maintain a currency peg to the euro, but the economy is barely growing, unemployment at an eight-year high and average monthly wage only 400 euros.
Borisov - who will make a final speech in the historic town of Veliko Tarnovo in central Bulgaria - has based his campaign on maintaining that discipline, which may reassure investors but has left him struggling to win a second time.
"The campaign in Bulgaria was very dirty," Borisov, whose GERB has been hit by involvement of a senior member in a scandal over illegal wiretapping, earlier told a political forum. "But people see what we have done in the past four years - the highways, the theatres, the sport halls."
For their part, the Socialists have made promises of job creation, lower taxes for the poor and increased spending but have struggled to convince beyond their core support, given they have also pledged fiscal stability.
In his final speech in Sofia on Thursday evening, leader Sergei Stanishev - who as premier in 2005-2009 oversaw a credit boom and bust that caused a deep recession - rallied supporters by criticizing GERB's failure to make significant improvements.
That appeals to traditional voters but has done little to convince most Bulgarians that they offer a significant upgrade.
"People are sick and tired of GERB and of their lies. Only we can bring in change," Stanishev told 5,000 cheering supporters waving red balloons and chanting "Victory".
Questions over how either group could control a majority in the 240 seat parliament persist.
Borisov could seek an unofficial alliance with the nationalist Attack and the pro-business Bulgaria for the Citizens. The Socialists have previously worked with the ethnic Turkish MRF, but given the two together may still fall short of a majority, they could also lobby for the backing of Bulgaria for the Citizens.
(Additional reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Alison Williams)