ST. PETKA, Bulgaria (Reuters) – Nestled on the slopes of the Rhodope mountains, the remote Bulgarian village of St. Petka briefly found itself at the centre of campaigning for Sunday’s parliamentary election when Prime Minister Boyko Borissov rolled up in his SUV.
Home to some 1,500 people, the village in southern Bulgaria has no sewage system but its school has been renovated with European Union funds and two streets have been paved with asphalt thanks to government cash.
“What you wanted, I have given you,” Borissov, clad in a leather jacket, told the local mayor and a group of villagers who greeted him in the village square on a sunny spring day.
Local infrastructure is what matters most for the villagers.
“You brought us back to life. We had lost all hope here,” Ibrahim Emin, a construction worker, told Borissov, praising improvements to a third road connecting St Petka to nearby villages.
Borissov, 61, a burly former fireman and bodyguard whose centre-right GERB party has led Bulgaria for nearly a decade, has campaigned for the election by streaming online his visits to highways and building sites and flagging his support for poor regions such as St Petka with hefty EU and government spending.
Opinion polls show GERB remaining the biggest party after Sunday’s election with 28-29% of the vote, down from 33.5% four years ago. But they suggest Borissov will face a more fragmented parliament and will struggle to build a stable coalition.
That in turn could hamper the ability of Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest member, to tap the bloc’s 750 billion euro ($884 billion) coronavirus Recovery Fund.
The polls see the main opposition Socialists taking second place with 20-22%. An anti-establishment grouping set up in 2019 by popular TV host and singer Slavi Trifonov, 54, is third with some 13%, closely followed by the ethnic Turkish MRF party.
During his three previous mandates, Borissov managed to keep public debt low while boosting incomes and overseeing massive infrastructure spending, and he secured Bulgaria’s entry into the euro zone’s “waiting room”.
But a series of corruption scandals – including a leaked photo of him sleeping with a gun next to his bed and others showing a stash of 500-euro bills and gold bars in his bedroom – have shocked the Bulgarian public and dented his popularity.
Borissov said the photos were part of an elaborate set-up engineered by his political opponents to embarrass him. He denies having any hidden wealth.
Many voters are disappointed by his record in fighting corruption since he first took power in 2009 on promises to rid the country of endemic graft and end the power of oligarchs.
Bulgaria ranks as the EU’s most corrupt country according to Transparency International. The European Commission has rapped Sofia over its failure to reform its judiciary and to convict a single high-level official for graft.
Anti-government protests swept through Bulgaria last year, providing impetus for Trifonov’s new anti-elite party ‘There is Such a People’ – although he did not join the rallies – and two other groupings seeking seats in Sunday’s vote.
Trifonov, whose concerts peppered with patriotic songs attract thousands of fans, says he opposes any coalition with mainstream parties, raising the spectre of a deadlocked parliament if his party performs well.
Back in St Petka, voters remain focused on local concerns.
“I hope he (Borissov) can help me,” said Fatime Dalova, 59, who has been waiting 30 years for local authorities to build a road to her house. “May he be healthy and well.”
(Editing by Gareth Jones)