Old conservative Conservative versus reformer in polls in Bulgaria

Bulgaria goes to polls on Sunday for the fourth time in 18 months, with experts predicting another fractured legislature.

Here’s a look at the two main players:

– veteran Borisov –

Three-time Prime Minister Boyko Borissov – a former firefighter and bodyguard – has dominated politics in the EU’s poorest member state for a decade, despite having resigned twice before – only to bounce back.

Polls show the 63-year-old’s conservative GERB party will win the most votes on Sunday, but like last April he may not find partners for government.

During his last tenure at the top job, he faced a wave of anti-graft protests in 2020. Despite allegations of corruption, he refused to resign, but his image as a “man of the people” was tarnished.

To cap it all, embarrassing images surfaced – which he said had been manipulated – including one that allegedly showed wads of €500 bills (worth $600 at the time) crammed into his bedside table were.

Borisov denies any wrongdoing and is planning another comeback after his party toppled the last government by a no-confidence motion amid rising inflation and worries about gas supplies ahead of the winter.

“We carry our cross: people expect us to get them out of the crisis,” said Borisov recently at an election campaign event, when he marched through the country with the slogan “Stronger than chaos”.

Though staunchly pro-European, Borisov has maintained good ties with Bulgaria’s communist-era ‘big brother’ Russia – which gave President Vladimir Putin a puppy in 2010 – and neighboring Turkey.

His opponents also accuse him of bolstering Russia’s energy foothold in the Balkans by building an extension of the Turk Stream transit gas pipeline through the country.

– Reformer Petkov –

Harvard-educated Kiril Petkov rose to prominence in last year’s third election in November, when his center-left PP party won the most votes and managed to cobble together a coalition by promising “zero corruption.”

The 42-year-old outgoing prime minister represents a younger generation of foreign-educated Bulgarians who want the country and its politics to be more closely aligned with Western standards.

Since taking the top job last December, Petkov and his associate, Harvard graduate Assen Vassilev, have tried to reverse what they call the patronage system.

“The rule of law has started to come back to Bulgaria,” Petkov, who some say looks like a younger version of Hollywood star John Travolta, said in an interview with AFP this week.

The energetic, pro-European technocrat and entrepreneur said his short tenure in power was “a great first step… towards normalcy”.

Petkov grew up in Canada but returned to Bulgaria about 15 years ago when the country joined the EU and started his own dietary supplement company.

Petkov and Vasilev were among thousands protesting against Borisov in 2020.

A fresh face in politics, Petkov was appointed economy minister in a transitional administration in 2021 before founding his party with Vasilev.

“They stand out from the political class with their integrity and their good intentions, but their intransigence goes too far. Because you have to find partners to govern,” said a Western diplomat.

As prime minister when the war in Ukraine began, Petkov had the tricky task of managing a traditionally largely pro-Russian public while struggling to keep the Moscow-influenced Socialists as coalition partners.