World Bulletin / News Desk
Bulgaria's veteran political bruiser Boyko Borisov was due Monday to begin tough talks to form a lasting government and become prime minister for the third time.
On Sunday Borisov's pro-EU centre-right GERB party came first in a snap election in the European Union's poorest country with 33 percent of the vote, according to projections from polling firms.
The burly Borisov, a former firefighter and bodyguard, saw off a stiff challenge from the Socialist Party (BSP), seen as closer to Moscow, which garnered 28 percent.
"I hope we can ensure the rapid formation of a government that responds to the wishes of the people and to the grave international situation," Borisov said late Sunday.
But whether the 57-year-old can form an administration -- and one that stays the course and is effective, unlike his previous two attempts -- remains to be seen.
In the first half of next year, Bulgaria will hold the rotating presidency of the EU in the midst of Britain's negotiations with Brussels on the terms of its exit from the bloc.
Borisov, once a bodyguard for Bulgaria's last communist leader and its ex-king, has long dominated national politics, serving as premier from 2009 to 2013 and again from 2014 to 2017.
But both times Borisov quit early, first in 2013 after mass protests and then last November after his candidate for the presidency was beaten by an air force commander backed by the BSP.
And his reform efforts, in particular in meeting Brussels' demands to tackle corruption and organised crime, failed to get off the ground both times.
A victory for the Socialists would have raised the prospect of the NATO member of 7.4 million people in south-eastern Europe tilting closer to Russia.
Russia, which has long had close cultural and economic ties with Bulgaria, has recently been accused of seeking to expand its influence in other Balkan countries.
PSB leader Kornelia 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 and to revive contentious joint projects.
He also successfully portrayed himself as being able to preserve Bulgaria's status as an "island of stability" in an unstable Balkans and amid tensions with neighbouring Turkey.
"Borisov had the wonderful idea of being reassuring, of adopting the role of unifier, of conciliator," said political analyst Haralan Alexandrov.
Votes for sale
The scourge of graft loomed over the poll, with prosecutors launching multiple electoral fraud probes and television channels alleging sales of votes for as little as 15 euros.
Voter apathy and disillusionment with the main parties were also widespread.
"The big parties are totally disconnected from the reality of what is going on in Bulgaria and that is outright irresponsible," said IT worker Alexander Naydenov, 35.
In the campaign, Borisov ruled out a tie-up with the centrist Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MDL) party representing Bulgaria's Turkish minority which came third or fourth with around 9.5 percent.
Potential partners include the United Patriots, also on some 9.5 percent, and Veselin Mareshki, a charismatic businessman who likes being called the Bulgarian Donald Trump.
It was unclear however whether Mareshki's party, Volya ("Will") cleared the four-percent hurdle needed to gain seats in parliament. Official results were due from Monday.
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