By Angel Krasimirov
SOFIA (Reuters) - A self-described Bulgarian Donald Trump, who gained prominence in politics last year with a pledge to "sweep away corrupt elites", could hold the balance of power in a parliamentary election in Bulgaria on March 26.
An owner of a pharmacy chain and petrol filling stations, among other businesses, Veselin Mareshki, 49, shocked political observers in November when he came fourth in a presidential ballot, scoring 11 percent of votes.
Since then, he has used populist and nationalist rhetoric to tap into growing anger among many Bulgarians over the inability of their post-communist governments to address corruption, poverty and crime.
Mareshki, former owner of the soccer club Lokomotiv Plovdiv, offers few concrete policies but argues cheap prices at his 350 pharmacies and 15 petrol stations are proof he can deliver.
"You saw what happened in the United States - a rich man, a businessman, won the election. So why can't this happen in Bulgaria?" Mareshki said in an interview.
"I am an anti-establishment candidate, just like Donald Trump. We're technocrats, we're businessmen."
Opinion polls show Mareshki is likely to fall short of U.S. President Donald Trump's success at the ballot, but is expected to win more than five percent of votes, enough to play an important role in the formation of Sofia's next government.
The center-right GERB party stepped down after its candidate lost the November presidential election to Rumen Radev, a pro-Russian ally of the Bulgarian Socialist Party.
GERB is expected to win 31 percent of the votes while the Socialists (BSP) could get 29 percent, a survey by independent pollster Alpha Research showed at the end of February.
This would mean Mareshki's Will party, alongside the ethnic Turkish MRF and a grouping of nationalist parties - National Front for the Salvation, VMRO and Attack - will vie for a place in a new cabinet with one of the two top winners.
Mareshki, however, has said little about his potential coalition preferences.
Bulgaria is likely to once again end up with a fragmented parliament that will struggle to form a stable coalition capable of implementing reforms, political analysts have said.
"We can expect a tight battle between GERB and BSP and quite problematic formation of a government," said Boriana Dimitrova, an analyst with Alpha Research.
"Mareshki's party will definitely be part of the next parliament. It is a populist party, which quickly gained ground during the presidential (election) campaign."
Corruption has eroded Bulgarians' trust in their public institutions and been a deterrent to businesses for years.
The European Commission, the European Union's executive arm, has repeatedly criticized the authorities in the Balkan state for failing to jail officials and overhaul its slow and inefficient judiciary.
"Our main goal is to break the backbone of corruption in Bulgaria," Mareshki said. "Everything starts from corruption. It creates smuggling, cartels and monopolies."
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov, editing by Pritha Sarkar)