SOFIA (REUTERS) - Bulgarians are voting on Sunday (Nov 21) to choose the country's next president in a run-off election, weary of widespread corruption in the European Union's poorest member state amid rising energy costs and high death toll from the coronavirus.
Incumbent President Rumen Radev, 58, an advocate of change aimed at cleaning Bulgaria's image as the EU's most corrupt member state, appears poised for a new five-year term after winning 49.5 per cent of the votes in the first round on Nov 14.
He competes with Sofia University Rector, Dr Anastas Gerdzhikov, 58, who won 22.8 per cent of the vote last week and is backed by the country's towering politician of the past decade, former premier Boyko Borissov who was ousted from power in April.
The presidential post is largely ceremonial, but comes to prominence in times of political crisis, when the head of the state can appoint interim Cabinets. The presidency also gives a high tribune to influence public opinion.
Mr Radev, a former air-force commander, has gained popularity for his open support of massive anti-graft protests against Mr Borissov in 2020 and for appointing interim Cabinets that brought to light murky public procurement deals of his last centre-right Cabinet. Mr Borissov has denied any wrongdoing.
A new anti-graft party, We Continue The Change (PP), set up by two Harvard-educated entrepreneurs who Mr Radev appointed as interim ministers in May, won the parliamentary election last week.
Mr Radev is supported by Mr Borissov's political opponents - PP, the Socialists and the anti-elite ITN party which, along with another anti-graft faction, are holding talks to form a government.
"Radev is a front runner, but much will depend on whether his supporters will actually go to cast a ballot," said political analyst Daniel Smilov with Sofia-based Centre for Liberal Strategies.
Dr Gerdzhikov, a respected professor in ancient and medieval literature, has accused Mr Radev of pitting Bulgarians against one another and pledged to unite the nation, hit by Covid-19-related death rates that are among the highest in the EU and soaring energy costs.
Dr Gerdzhikov is a strong supporter of Nato-member Bulgaria's Western alliances, and has campaigned to improve business opportunities and support judicial reforms to improve rule of law in the country of seven million people.
Mr Radev, who campaigned in 2016 for the lifting of Western sanctions against Russia, said Bulgaria must keep pragmatic ties with Moscow and should not view it as an enemy, not least because of close historical and cultural links.
His comments that the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014, was "currently Russian", prompted protests from Kiyv.
Voting starts at 7am (1pm Singapore time) and ends at 8pm (2am Monday Singapore time). The elected president takes office in January next year.