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Borisov’s pro-EU party beats Socialists in Bulgaria’s snap election

Boiko Borisov, the comeback specialist of Bulgarian politics, looked to have done it again as exit polls from a snap election put his pro-EU centre-right party in first place.

Borisov’s European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party won about 32%, the exit polls on Sunday showed, ahead of the Socialist party (BSP) on about 28%.

Observers had suggested victory for the BSP might see Bulgaria, a Nato member, tilt more towards Russia. Moscow, which has long had close cultural and economic ties with Bulgaria, has been accused of seeking to expand its influence in other Balkan countries in recent months.

Borisov said after the exit poll that he was “obliged” by the vote to form a government but whether the burly former firefighter and mayor of Sofia, 57, can form a stable coalition remains to be seen.

The European Union’s poorest country, where the average monthly salary is just €500 (£430) and corruption is rife, has been unstable for years. The election was the third in four years.

Borisov, once a bodyguard for Bulgaria’s last Communist leader, has long dominated national politics, serving as prime minister from 2009 to 2013 and again from 2014 to 2017.

In between, the BSP was in power for barely a year. Both times Borisov quit early, first in 2013 after mass protests and then last November after his candidate for the presidency was beaten by a former air force chief backed by the BSP.

Forming a coalition this time will be tough. The nationalist United Patriots looked to have come third with about 8%, although the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MDL) party, representing Bulgaria’s Turkish minority, may have beaten them.

The performance of the BSP, the successors to the Communist party, was worse than expected after its new leader, Kornelia Ninova, appeared to have energised the party.

Ninova had said she was not content with Bulgaria being a “second-class member” of the EU and that she would veto an extension of sanctions imposed by Brussels on Moscow.

But Borisov also said during the campaign that he wanted more “pragmatic” ties with Russia, while Ninova, 48, insisted that she remained committed to the EU. “We are the party that ushered Bulgaria into the European Union and Nato and we stand by [our obligations in] these organisations,” she told AFP recently.

The campaign also saw a spat erupt between Bulgaria and its neighbour Turkey. Bulgaria is home to a 700,000-strong Muslim minority, most of them ethnic Turks, while at least 200,000 ethnic Turks with Bulgarian passports live in Turkey.

Ankara’s support for a new party, Dost, which unlike the main MDL party, fervently backs the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has irked Sofia.

The MDL’s leader, Mustafa Karadaya, has said that Erdoğan had “abandoned” the values of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.

The dispute boosted the United Patriots, who blocked the border on Friday to stop voters coming in from Turkey, before being dispersed by police.

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