After the five-year term of President Rosen Plevneliev, Bulgarians will vote Sunday in the first round of presidential polls as the new president will seek to tilt the ex-communist country more into the Russian or the Western orbit. The election campaign focused mainly on the future of the European Union, relations with Russia and the threats from a possible rise in migrant inflows from neighboring Turkey.
For the first time, voting in the presidential elections will be compulsory. The first round is expected to be a tense runoff between Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's right-hand-woman and a MiG-flying ex-general seen as more sympathetic to Moscow.
If the premier's protege Tsetska Tsacheva fails to become Bulgaria's first female president in the second round a week later, Borisov might call for fresh elections, plunging the EU's poorest member state into renewed turmoil, analysts say.
Sunday's first round opinion polls suggest that Tsacheva, currently the speaker of parliament, will top the crowded field of 21 candidates vying to be the south-eastern European country's president with around 30 percent of the vote. But close on the 58-year-old's tail will be former head of the air force Rumen Radev, the candidate of the opposition Socialists, credited with 27 percent by the latest Mediana poll.
Borisov's first term ended abruptly in February 2013 when Bulgarians livid about poverty, corruption and cronyism took to the streets across the country. Eight people set themselves on fire.
More protests brought down the subsequent technocrat government after barely a year, precipitating fresh elections that returned Borisov to power, albeit heading a minority government.
Graft and poverty remain rife, however, and progress on reforms has been sluggish. A new voter concern in recent months has been thousands of migrants stranded in Bulgaria since neighboring countries closed their borders.
The job of the Bulgarian president is largely ceremonial but he or she is still a respected figure who chooses some of the top security and judicial officials and has the power to appoint technocrat governments in a crisis. NATO member Bulgaria last September angered Moscow by banning Russian supply flights to Syria from using its airspace. Last year Bulgaria partly hosted major U.S. military exercises involving 11 NATO allies.
Rosen Pleneviev, the outgoing president, has been outspoken in his criticism of Russia and its President Vladimir Putin. "What today Russia is trying to achieve is to weaken Europe, to divide Europe and to make us dependent," Pleneviev told the BBC in an interview published Friday. At the same time, however, Bulgaria's economy has a huge reliance on Russia, particularly in gas, and the two countries have deep historical and cultural ties.
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