Bulgaria presidential poll to test anti-corruption reform appetite

Largely ceremonial post comes to prominence in times of political crisis

Bulgarians will vote to choose the country's next president in a run-off election on Sunday, weary of widespread corruption in the EU's poorest member state.

Incumbent President Rumen Radev, 58, an advocate of change aimed at cleaning Bulgaria's image as the EU's most corrupt member state, appears poised for a new five-year term after winning 49.5 per cent of the votes in the first round on November 14.

He competes with Sofia University rector, Anastas Gerdzhikov, 58, who won 22.8 per cent of the vote last week and is backed by the country's towering politician of the past decade, former prime minister Boyko Borissov who was ousted from power in April.

The presidential post is largely ceremonial, but comes to prominence in times of political crisis, when the head of the state can appoint interim cabinets. The presidency also gives a high tribune to influence the public opinion.

Mr Radev, a former air force commander, has gained popularity for his open support of massive anti-corruption protests against Mr Borissov in 2020 and for appointing interim cabinets that brought to light murky public procurement deals of his last centre-right cabinet. Mr Borissov has denied any wrongdoing.

A new anti-corruption party, We Continue The Change (PP), set up by two Harvard-educated entrepreneurs who Mr Radev appointed as interim ministers in May, won the parliamentary election last week.

Mr Radev is supported by Mr Borissov's political opponents – PP, the Socialists and the anti-elite ITN party which, along with another anti-corruption faction, are holding talks to form a government.

"Radev is a front-runner, but much will depend on whether his supporters will actually go to cast a ballot," said political analyst Daniel Smilov with Sofia-based Centre for Liberal Strategies.

Ties with Moscow

Ms Gerdzhikov, a respected professor in Ancient and Medieval Literature, has accused Mr Radev of pitting Bulgarians against one another and pledged to unite the nation, hit by Covid-related death rates that are among the highest in the EU and soaring energy costs.

She is a strong supporter of Nato-member Bulgaria's western alliances and has campaigned to improve business opportunities and support judicial reforms to improve rule of law in the country of seven million people.

Mr Radev, who campaigned in 2016 for the lifting of western sanctions against Russia, said Bulgaria must keep pragmatic ties with Moscow and should not view it as an enemy, not least because of close historic and cultural links.

His comments that the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014, was "currently Russian", prompted protests from Kiev.

Updated: November 21st 2021, 6:34 AM