By Tsvetelia Tsolova and Angel Krasimirov
SOFIA (Reuters) – Former air force commander Rumen Radev narrowly won the first round of presidential elections in Bulgaria on Sunday, exit polls showed, raising prospects of political instability in the small Black Sea state and a strategic shift towards Russia.
Radev, a 53-year-old ally of the opposition Socialist party, has called for an end of European Union sanctions against Russia and has said EU member Bulgaria should hedge its bets when it comes to international alliances.
Exit polls by Alpha Research and Gallup International showed Radev winning 24.8-26.7 percent of the vote in which 20 other candidates also competed. First partial results will be released early on Monday.
A failure to secure an overall majority would mean Radev will face a runoff vote next Sunday against the runner-up, which exit polls showed as Tsetska Tsacheva, 58, the centre-right GERB ruling party candidate.
Opinion polls conducted ahead of the election showed Radev was likely to lose the first round but win the runoff. Sunday’s exit polls showed Tsacheva winning 22.5-23.5 percent of the vote.
Speaking to reporters, GERB Prime Minister Boiko Borisov said he would resign if Tsacheva loses the expected runoff. Prior to the vote, he pledged to step down if his party’s candidate lost the first round.
“We will wait to see the final results. We are mobilising our forces for the second round and I think we have a chance to win it. If we lose the runoff, we are heading to early elections,” Borisov said.
Analysts said that a loss by Borisov’s party in the first round would be a blow his minority government.
“It is likely the GERB candidate will lose the runoff, too. That means a government reshuffle is on the horizon and we can expect an early election next year,” said Kiril Avramov, a political analyst with New Bulgarian University.
Government officials signalled any decisions would be taken in the coming days, after official results were in. But exit poll results underscored how GERB’s popularity has been eroded by disappointment over the pace of reforms, particularly in health care and education, as well as anti-corruption efforts.
In his campaign, Radev tapped into public anger with political elites and a fear of migrants, saying on Sunday that he would “not allow Bulgaria to become the migrant ghetto of Europe.”
“Bulgarians said ‘no’ today to apathy and voted for change,” a jubilant Radev told a news conference.
Under the constitution, the president’s job is largely ceremonial, but he or she can influence public opinion, veto legislation and lobby for policies.
NATO member Bulgaria has long been an anomaly in Europe because of its warm ties with Russia. But Radev’s election could also add another voice within the EU against the resettlement of refugees from the Middle East.
Relatively few migrants have crossed into the country of 7.2 million at the height of a crisis last year, choosing a shorter route through the Balkans towards western Europe instead. But Sofia is concerned about a possible new wave. It has said the number of people trying to cross the country’s borders has been on the rise since June.
Economically, signs of political instability could further deter investment from the EU’s poorest country, which has suffered relatively more than other member state as a result the bloc’s sanctions against Russia over its actions in Crimea.
“This is a big loss for GERB,” said Parvan Simeonov, a political analyst with Gallup International. “If Radev wins the runoff – something that is quite likely – we can expect that Bulgaria will enter a new political stage.”
(Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Alan Crosby)