SOFIA, Nov 21 (Reuters) – Bulgarians are voting on Sunday to choose the country’s next president in a run-off election, weary of widespread corruption in the European Union’s poorest member state amid rising energy costs and high death toll from the coronavirus.
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 5-year term after winning 49.5% of the votes in the first round on Nov. 14.
He competes with Sofia University Rector, Anastas Gerdzhikov, 58, who won 22.8% of the vote last week and is backed by the country’s towering politician of the past decade, ex-premier 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.
Radev, a former air-force commander, has gained popularity for his open support of massive anti-graft protests against Borissov in 2020 and for appointing interim cabinets that brought to light murky public procurement deals of his last centre-right cabinet. Borissov has denied any wrongdoing.
A new anti-graft party, We Continue The Change (PP), set up by two Harvard-educated entrepreneurs who Radev appointed as interim ministers in May, won the parliamentary election last week.
Radev is supported by Borissov’s political opponents — PP, the Socialists and the anti-elite ITN party which, along with another anti-graft 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.
Gerdzhikov, a respected Professor in Ancient and Medieval Literature, has accused 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.
Gerdzhikov 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 7 million people.
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 historical and cultural links.
His comments that the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014, was “currently Russian”, prompted protests from Kiyv.
Voting starts at 7 a.m (0500 GMT) and ends at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT). The elected president takes office in January next year.
(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; editing by Clelia Oziel)