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Borissov leads in Bulgaria’s election but faces battle to form a government

Former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov looks set to win Bulgaria’s election on Sunday night, but it is still highly unclear whether the tarnished former karate champion can form a government.

Exit polls from Alpha Research and Gallup suggested Borissov’s center-right GERB party was on course to win about 25 percent of the vote in Bulgaria’s fourth general election in 18 months, meaning that he will now have to try cobble together a coalition in a highly fractured political landscape.

This need to pull together a government will only be complicated by Borissov’s toxic reputation. People poured into the streets of Sofia and other cities in 2020 to protest about his government’s connections to the mafia and Bulgaria’s “captured state.”

Despite Borissov’s history of often cozy relations with the Kremlin and Russian energy companies, the burly former bodyguard is trying to style himself as a pro-EU Atlanticist in this election. Given the war in Ukraine, Borissov now insists that he is (finally) willing to talk tough with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man to whom he once gave a puppy and consistently strove to please with favorable schemes for gas export monopoly Gazprom.

The pressure is on for some kind of compromise because the war in Ukraine has helped stoke runaway inflation in the run-up to what promises to be a tough winter, but the political arithmetic is complex.

The natural parties for a pro-EU, pro-NATO alliance would be “We Continue the Change,” led by former Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, which is on track to come in second with about 20 percent of the vote, and Democratic Bulgaria, a smaller anti-corruption party that appeared on course for slightly less than 8 percent.

Both of those parties, however, see Borissov as an epitome of the country’s ills and it is extremely unlikely that they could work with GERB. Petkov has in the past hinted that his party could only cooperate with GERB if Borissov — whom he has slammed as “the most dishonest person I know” — were to withdraw from politics.

Both “We Continue the Change” and Democratic Bulgaria know their reputations could be shredded by teaming up with GERB.

That leaves Borissov facing the prospect of dealing with a regular rogues’ gallery of other parties that each brings problems.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the ethnic Turkish party, is on course to win about 14 percent of the vote, but its reputation for corruption outshines even that of GERB. In fact, the 2020 anti-mafia protests were sparked mainly by Borissov’s connections to kingpins within the Turkish party. By joining up with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, Borissov would be well aware he could reignite the public anger of two years ago.

The pro-Russian Revival party had a strong election night and polls put it at about 10 percent of the vote. Partnering with such far-right extremists would be hard for Borissov, though, if he wanted to maintain any credibility in Brussels and Washington as portraying himself as taking Sofia on a more westwardly trajectory.

If Borissov is unable to break the impasse, the most likely outcome is that President Rumen Radev would name another caretaker government for a few months before new elections. Radev, a former MiG-29 pilot and head of the air force, is himself widely seen as equivocal on tackling Russia. His name was conspicuously missing from a letter from NATO leaders from Central Europe condemning Moscow’s illegal annexation of eastern Ukraine.

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