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Veteran conservative faces reformer in Bulgaria polls

#Veteran #conservative #faces #reformer #Bulgaria #polls

Bulgaria goes to the polls on Sunday for a fourth time in 18 months with experts predicting yet another fractured legislature.

Here’s a look at the two main players:

– Veteran Borisov –

Three-time premier Boyko Borisov — an ex-firefighter and bodyguard — has dominated politics in the EU’s poorest member state for a decade, although he has previously quit twice — only to bounce back. 

Polls show the 63-year-old’s conservative party GERB will win the most votes on Sunday, but like in April last year, he may not be able to find partners to govern.

During his last stint in the top job, he faced a wave of anti-graft protests in 2020. Despite accusations of corruption, he refused to quit but his image as a “man of the people” was tarnished.

To cap it all off, embarrassing pictures emerged — which he said were doctored — including one which purportedly showed bundles of 500-euro (then worth $600) notes crammed into his bedside table.

Borisov denies all wrongdoing and is eyeing another comeback after his party felled the last government via a no-confidence motion amid soaring inflation and worries over gas supply ahead of winter.

“We carry our cross: people expect us to get them out of the crises,” Borisov said during a recent campaign event as he crisscrossed the country with the slogan “Stronger than the chaos”.

Despite being firmly pro-European, Borisov has maintained good links with Bulgaria’s communist-era “big brother” Russia — giving President Vladimir Putin a puppy in 2010 — and neighbouring Turkey.

His opponents also accuse him of helping to strengthen Russia’s energy foothold in the Balkans by building an extension of the Turk Stream transit gas pipeline through the country.

– Reformer Petkov –

Harvard-educated Kiril Petkov rose to prominence in last year’s third election in November, when his centre-left party PP won the most votes and managed to cobble together a coalition by promising “zero corruption”.

The 42-year-old outgoing prime minister represents a younger generation of foreign-educated Bulgarians, who want the country and its policies oriented more toward Western standards.

Since taking on the top job last December, Petkov and his associate, fellow Harvard graduate Assen Vassilev, have sought to reverse what they say is a system of patronage. 

“The rule of law has started to come back to Bulgaria,” Petkov, who some say looks like a younger version of Hollywood star John Travolta, told AFP in an interview this week.

The energetic, pro-European technocrat and entrepreneur said his short stint in power was “a great first step… to normality”.

Petkov grew up in Canada but returned to Bulgaria around 15 years ago as the country was joining the EU, creating his own nutritional supplement company.

Petkov and Vassilev were among thousands who protested in 2020 against Borisov.

A fresh face in politics, Petkov was appointed economy minister in a caretaker administration in 2021 before setting up his party with Vassilev.

“They stand out from the political class by their integrity and are well-intentioned, but their intransigence comes too much. Because you have to find partners to govern,” a Western diplomat said.

As premier when the war in Ukraine began, Petkov had the tricky task of managing a public that is traditionally largely pro-Russian while struggling to keep Moscow-influenced Socialists as a coalition partner.

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