By Diana Simeonova
Exit polls indicated the party of conservative former premier Boyko Borisov has come first in Bulgaria’s general election Sunday, the country’s fourth in 18 months, held amid mounting anxiety over soaring inflation and the impact of the Ukraine war.
Borisov’s GERB party has won around 25 percent of the vote, followed by the party of his centrist rival Kiril Petkov, which won around 19 percent, according to exit polls.
However, 63-year-old veteran former premier Borisov will face an uphill battle finding coalition partners.
He has previously held power three times, and ran on a ticket of restoring calm and ending the worst period of political instability in Bulgaria’s post-communist history.
While endemic corruption was the focus of the previous vote last November, economic woes are now top of voters’ concerns.
The European Union’s poorest member state is battling annual inflation of close to 20 percent.
Krasimira Velkova, a 64-year-old economist who cast her ballot in Sofia, confirmed these fears.
“People worry about inflation, about the fact that when you enter a food store, a shopping trolley that’s just half full costs a fortune. The difference compared to last year is absolutely staggering,” she told AFP.
“We are worried about how we’ll get through the winter,” Velkova added.
Sunday’s vote was marked by a lack of enthusiasm, with turnout on just 25 percent at 4:00 p.m. local time (1300 GMT).
‘The lesser evil’
On Sunday Borisov argued that he was Bulgaria’s “most experienced” politician and stressed the country’s European Union and NATO allegiances.
“We need people with experience in these troubled times,” 62-year-old garage owner Bogomil Gruev said after casting a ballot in a Sofia suburb. “We can reproach Boyko for some things but he is the lesser evil.”
Another voter, 47-year-old nurse Rada Mincheva, praised Borisov’s ability to manoeuvre between western and Russian interests.
“The war is very close to us,” she said. “We’d better not provoke anyone.”
The Balkan country has been dogged by political instability since early last year, when GERB lost power following massive anti-corruption demonstrations.
Borisov’s rival, outgoing reformist premier Kiril Petkov, 42, had urged voters to let him “continue the change” his government had initiated on an anti-corruption platform.
The Harvard-educated former entrepreneur stormed onto the political scene in 2021 but his precarious four-party coalition was toppled in a no-confidence motion after just seven months.
Petkov urged people on Sunday “to make the important choice… to move forward towards a new, prosperous, capable and transformed Bulgaria.
“I hope that more young people who left will return to Bulgaria!” he said after casting his ballot in Sofia.
His government had offered substantial rises in pensions and Petkov said he was planning a rise of the average salary in Bulgaria, which now stands at 870 euros ($853), the lowest in the 27-nation EU.
Retired lawyer Sasho Chobanov, 74, hailed the “right foundations” laid down by Petkov’s reformist, if short-lived, cabinet.
“The only thing that I am anxious about, from a moral point of view, is not to have the bandit party come back to power,” he said, referring to GERB.
Petkov has categorically ruled out forming a coalition with Borisov, heightening fears the vote may fail to end the country’s political turmoil.
Borisov, on the other hand, repeated once again on Sunday that he would be open to talks with anyone on forming a cabinet — for the sake of stability amid the war in Ukraine and people’s fears about rising inflation.
“What’s important for us is for reason to prevail…,” he said. “Believe me, right now I am the most well-meaning and open person to all parties.”
However, New Bulgarian University analyst Antony Todorov was sceptical about the chances of Borisov’s GERB party being in a position to form a stable coalition.
“I don’t believe that GERB, which is very isolated, could return to power,” Todorov said.
The protracted political instability has left Bulgaria struggling to pass reforms and has hampered economic growth.
Another analyst, Georgy Kiryakov, said Borisov could find potential coalition partners in the Turkish minority MRF party and the pro-Russian ultra-nationalist Vazrazhdane party, which look to have taken 14 and 10 percent of the vote respectively.