Bulgarian leader wins election with tough path to government

[BULGARIA] Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov's party won Sunday's elections, but thorny ties with his political rivals complicated his path to a fourth term as leader of the European Union's (EU) poorest and most corrupt member.

Already one of the EU's longest-serving leaders, the former bodyguard of the Balkan state's last communist dictator capitaliSed on support from conservative voters drawn to his brusque man-of-the-people style. Critics say he has done little to crack down on endemic graft or improve living standards for Bulgaria's 7 million people.

The main rivals to Mr Borissov's Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria party, known as Gerb, have vowed not to cooperate with it - or each other - in any governing alliance.

With the route to forming a new government uncertain, Mr Borissov called on his rivals to unite to help Bulgaria emerge from a resurgence in the coronavirus pandemic, rebuild the economy and prepare to spend EU funds earmarked for Bulgaria.

"That's my offer to everyone," Mr Borissov said on Facebook just hours after voting ended. "Let's see if we can unite for the good of the country." Gerb won 23.8 per cent, according to partial results with 25 per cent counted.

There Is Such a People, a newly formed group led by populist talk-show host Stanislav Trifonov, won 18.8 per cent, in front of the opposition Socialists, which had 14.9 per cent. The results resembled exit polls released after the close of voting stations. As many as six parties looked poised to enter parliament.

"In such a fragmented parliament, it'll be very hard" to form a government, Boryana Dimitrova, a managing partner at Alpha Research, told BNT. "Either someone will have to cross boundaries and make compromises that were unacceptable until now, or the parliament will have a very short life."

President Rumen Radev should first give a mandate to form a government to the election winner. If it fails, the second-biggest party gets a turn. If that doesn't work, a third party, chosen by the president, is given a chance before a new election is called.

When he first took power in 2009, Mr Borissov ruled with Gerb on its own without a parliamentary majority, while he cobbled together coalitions for his other two governments with smaller parties who went back on pledges to shun him.

In that time, he has faced scandals, allegations over ties to organized crime, street protests and feuds with the president and some of the country's richest men. He even resigned twice. The country is also currently one of the world's coronavirus hotspots - and the economy is taking a hit.

Corruption, Poverty Transparency International ranks Bulgaria last in the EU for endemic graft, and the EU has criticized it for failing to uphold the rule of law. Meanwhile, gross domestic product per capita, when adjusted for relative purchasing power, is just over 50 per cent of the EU average.

Still, Mr Borissov has also been adept at balancing the nation's interests between historical ally Russia and the West. He has embraced NATO and the EU while former eastern bloc peers Hungary and Poland engage in open conflict with Brussels.

His government also boasts one of the bloc's lowest debt levels and narrow budget deficits. Mr Borissov campaigned on keeping taxes low, improving the distribution of EU funds and adopting the euro in 2024, a process that, along with joining the EU's passport-free Schengen travel zone, has been delayed by concerns over graft.

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