Bulgarians voted yesterday to elect their president, a largely ceremonial role that the current incumbent has transformed and put at the heart of the struggle against corruption in the European Union’s poorest country.
Incumbent President Rumen Radev, the frontrunner with 49% of the vote in last weekend’s first round, faced off against academic Anastas Gerdjikov after neither could secure an outright majority.
While Radev, a former fighter pilot, is the country’s most popular politician, Bulgaria itself is riven by fractious political parties that have failed to deliver a stable government needed to tackle deep-seated graft and the worsening coronavirus pandemic.
“Everything’s going wrong. I want that to change for my children, grandchildren and former pupils,” retired teacher Dobrinka Nakova told AFP in the capital Sofia while out to vote.
After voting yesterday, Radev said he wanted to continue his mission of “change”.
“Let’s take our destiny into our own hands, not let others undermine our future,” he said.
New Bulgarian University political science professor Antoniy Todorov summed up the vote as “a clash between two visions” in the eastern European country.
It is one between “the soft tolerance of endemic corruption and the firm opposition to a model of governance that uses public power for private purposes,” Todorov wrote in a blog post this week.
A clear win for Radev, 58, may usher in a period of political stability after a new anti-graft party won a surprise victory last weekend in the country’s third general election this year.
The party, called We Continue the Change, now hopes to find coalition partners to end six months of political deadlock that have drawn out the worst political crisis since the end of communism three decades ago.
But while Gerdjikov, also 58, only drew 23% in the first round, the University of Sofia rector is backed by the GERB party of former conservative prime minister Boyko Borisov, which came a close second in the general election.
Gerdjikov was also expected to garner strong support from the nation’s sizeable Turkish minority, comprising about 9% of the seven million population.
Analysts also say that voter apathy might make the win more difficult for Radev, who was backed by the Socialists for his first five-year term but now runs as an independent.
Only 40% of those eligible turned out for the first round, and the electoral commission said just 24% had voted by 1400 GMT yesterday, the number sharply down from 2016.
And lacking a party machine, Radev depends on a broad spectrum of supporters.
Those include We Continue the Change, whose founders — Harvard graduates Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev — served as ministers in the first interim administration Radev appointed in May after an inconclusive poll in April.
Radev had supported the protests against Borisov’s 10-year rule last summer, shouting “Mafia out!” with his fist raised in the air as he briefly joined the crowd.
He has also turned around perceptions that he is pro-Russian, said Gallup analyst Parvan Simeonov.
“Radev is no longer considered a Moscow man,” he said.
“Vote for the president who started the change,” Petkov urged in a video address this week. In a presidential debate on Thursday, Radev said he regretted most that he “didn’t manage to contribute to the toppling of Borisov’s regime sooner”.
But the end of Borisov’s reign also marked the beginning of the political deadlock.
And that has coincided with a coronavirus onslaught, Bulgaria having the lowest vaccination rate of any EU member and one of the world’s highest Covid-19 mortality rates. The second caretaker administration Radev appointed after parties failed yet another attempt to form a government after polls in July was strongly criticised for its poor handling of the outbreak.
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