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Bulgaria PM tipped for poll win after protests fade

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(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 10, 2020 Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov addresses journalists as he arrives at the EU headquarters’ Europa building in Brussels on December 10, 2020, prior to a European Union summit. (Photo by JOHN THYS / various sources / AFP)

Bulgarians will go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament, with Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s centre-right party tipped to finish first despite a wave of anti-government protests last summer.

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While the latest polls give Borisov’s GERB party an average lead of eight percentage points over the main opposition Socialists, analysts still expect the next parliament to be marked by more instability.

“It is impossible to keep the status quo,” says political analyst Daniel Smilov, adding that GERB was likely to emerge weakened after “a build-up of discontent” over the government’s purported links with the country’s oligarchy.

A series of corruption scandals prompted thousands of people from all ages and affiliations, including many young Bulgarians who returned from abroad, to take to the streets demanding the resignations of Borisov and Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev over their perceived protection of powerful behind-the-scenes oligarchs.

Borisov has refused all contact with the media since last summer and turned down all invitations for debates, instead choosing to broadcast to his followers on social media.

The daily demonstrations died out with the second wave of the coronavirus in the autumn but “the energy for change is still present”, said one protester, Ina Belcheva, a PhD student in Paris.

“I hope that new faces, better quality politicians will enter this parliament,” she added.

One of the most keenly watched aspects of the results will be the performance of several formations which supported the protests.

The right-wing Democratic Bulgaria coalition, whose leaders were prominent figures in encouraging the protests, seem on track to pass the four-percent threshold to enter parliament.

Another left-wing formation emerging from the protests and close to Socialist-backed President Rumen Radev also looks likely to pick up MPs.

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Pandemic fears
In any case, observers expect a badly fragmented legislature and a tortuous process to form a government.

Political analyst Evgeny Daynov said a period of weak government could have some advantages.

In such a scenario “the civil service can at last again start to work on the basis of the law and not according to party orders,” he told AFP.

While many virus restrictions were eased on Thursday, in what was seen by many as an attempt by the government to win votes, the ban on large gatherings has been in place for weeks.

The lifeless campaign that resulted, coupled with fears of infection, could depress turnout — particularly among the Socialists’ older electorate.

Among the other smaller parties, a new populist formation led by talk show host Slavi Trifonov is polling in third position.

Just behind them is the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) party, which represents the Turkish minority and often plays the role of kingmaker.

The MRF was a particular target for anti-corruption protestors and took a step to cleaning up its image by withdrawing a particularly controversial candidate from its list.

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Bringing up the rear in polls are GERB’s current government coalition partners, the nationalist VMRO party, who have led an aggressive campaign based on anti-Roma, anti-minority and anti-North Macedonia rhetoric.

‘Eyes opened’
The protesters have already had some small victories, including the reopening of a beach illegally sealed off because of its proximity to the seaside villa of an oligarch.

Belcheva is happy that her fellow demonstrators put corruption on the agenda and shook up a situation where the graft was “so widespread that people no longer noticed”.

“The protests opened the eyes of Bulgarians and alerted Western countries about inadmissible practices,” added a 27-year-old IT specialist who returned to Bulgaria from London but preferred not to be named.

The protests also attracted attention abroad.

At the start of the election campaign, the US senate foreign relations committee chairman Bob Menendez and member Jim Risch issued a special statement demanding a “rule of law for all, not just some” and freedom for the press “to report the truth without facing harassment”.

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