By VESELIN TOSHKOV
SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Bulgarians went to the polls on Sunday to choose a new president in a hotly contested runoff amid a COVID-19 surge and a political crisis that has gripped the European Union’s poorest country.
The choice is between incumbent Rumen Radev, 58, who is seeking a second five-year term in the largely ceremonial post, and Sofia University rector, Anastas Gerdzhikov, 58, who is backed by the center right GERB party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.
Radev, a vocal critic of Borissov and firm supporter of last year’s anti-corruption protests, is going into the runoff as the favorite after winning 49.5 % of the votes in the first round on Nov. 14, well ahead of Gerdzhikov, who won 22.8%.
Radev, a former air force commander, has attracted many Bulgarians — who are fed up with politicians they see as corrupt and distanced from the people — by appointing two consecutive caretaker governments that unveiled alleged corruption cases in the industry and financial sectors.
Founded only few weeks ago by two Harvard graduates, the We Continue the Change party, surprisingly won the parliamentary election last week because of their resolute anti-graft actions as Finance and Economy caretaker ministers.
The new party has declared its support for Radev, along with several other opponents of Boyko Borissov, including the Socialist Party and the anti-elite There is Such a People party.
Gerdzhikov, a professor in ancient and mediaeval literature, is supported by Borissov’s GERB party and the mainly Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms.
A strong supporter of Bulgaria’s pro-Western orientation, Gerdzhikov has pledged to unite the nation, to improve the rule of law and work for better business opportunities.
Radev, a former NATO fighter pilot who studied for a time at the U.S. Air War College in Alabama, has pledged to maintain Bulgaria’s place in the Western alliance, if he is reelected. But he also has insisted for pragmatic ties with Russia and that sanctions on Moscow need to be lifted.
During a presidential debate last week, Radev said that the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014, was “currently Russian.” His remarks prompted protests from the Ukrainian government.
About 6.7 million Bulgarians are eligible to vote, but pollsters expect many of them to stay home because of growing concern over a new deadly COVID-19 wave.
Preliminary results will be announced Sunday night, with the final outcome due Monday.
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