Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov's ruling Gerb party is expected to win a parliamentary election on Sunday, when the Balkan state votes in the shadow of corruption and spy scandals and a severe third wave of Covid-19 infections.
Polls suggest the centre-right Gerb will take about a quarter of votes in the country of seven million, about 5 per cent more than the opposition Socialists, but may then have difficulty forging a majority in a fragmented parliament.
Gerb could seek an alliance with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which is closely linked to Bulgaria’s Turkish minority and is forecast to win about 12 per cent of votes, but at least three other parties that are likely to enter parliament strongly criticise Mr Borisov, who has ruled his country for most of the last decade.
Those parties were strengthened by or sprang from major protests last summer against graft and cronyism in the EU’s poorest state. Thousands rallied in the capital, Sofia, to demand the government’s resignation, but Mr Borisov weathered the storm with a pledge to provide stability during the pandemic and to overhaul the nation’s constitution.
The demonstrations fizzled out as the coronavirus crisis ground on, but revealed deep dissatisfaction with Gerb among younger urban voters.
In an attempt to show he retains his common touch, Mr Borisov has campaigned by driving around the country and meeting voters in provincial Bulgaria, where the burly former bodyguard and fireman still enjoys widespread popularity.
Critics accuse Mr Borisov (61) of presiding over a crooked system that enriches only a tiny elite, and last June he was angered by the publication of photographs that appeared to show him asleep at his residence beside a handgun and a nightstand packed with €500 bills and gold ingots.
Mr Borisov said the photos were fake, and suggested that Russia and domestic political enemies could have staged them.
Bulgaria’s traditionally strong ties with Moscow have been rattled by several espionage scandals in recent years, most recently when Sofia announced last month that it had broken up a major spy ring and expelled two Russian diplomats.
Analysts say Mr Borisov is eager to show that Bulgaria is a reliable EU and Nato member – partly to soften western criticism of his government's record on graft – while maintaining cordial ties with Russia, his nation's chief energy supplier.
Despite Bulgaria reporting its biggest daily rise in coronavirus cases on Wednesday – and ranking third in the world on Friday for new Covid-19 deaths per capita, according to Our World in Data – the government eased lockdown rules this week.
Bulgaria has the slowest Covid-19 inoculation rate in the EU, but is due to receive some 1.26 million extra vaccine doses via the bloc’s “solidarity” scheme in the coming months.