The candidate of Bulgaria’s ruling right-wing GERB party, Rosen Plevneliev, was leading Sunday’s presidential race, exit polls showed, but was heading for a second-round run-off.
Plevneliev, a popular former construction minister, was leading with between 39.4 and 41.1 percent support, ahead of former Bulgarian minister of foreign affairs Ivaylo Kalfin on 26.7 and 30 percent, exit polls from Gallup, Alpha Research, Sova Harris and MBMD suggested.
Bulgaria’s former EU commissioner Meglena Kuneva, who ran as an independent, was trailing in third with between 14 and 17 percent.
The failure of any of the candidates to secure an outright majority automatically sends the two top contenders on a second-round run-off on Sunday.
Analysts predicted an easy final win for Pleveneliev in the run-off if official counts confirmed a first-round lead of over 10 percent against Kalfin. They believed he would have faced a much tougher run-off if Kuneva had made it to the run-off.
“I did not expect such strong support,” a tired-looking Plevneliev told bTV private television, while pledging to be a “deserving, independent, non-partisan” head of state.
The 47-year-old construction management expert entered politics only two years ago and never became a member of the GERB party.
He won popularity as construction minister for his efforts to renovate the country’s aging infrastructure and to kickstart several major highway projects with EU money.
Kalfin has projected himself as the social alternative to the government’s anti-crisis austerity drive and promising to prioritize employment, salaries and healthcare.
Bulgaria’s president is elected in a direct ballot for a five-year term in office. He is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and his role is largely ceremonial.
Bulgarian President Georgy Parvanov of the Bulgarian Socialist Party could not run again after two successive terms in office and his presidential seat is now highly coveted by GERB, which already controls both parliament and the government.
Analysts also saw the two-in-one presidential and local vote as an important gauge for the minority government’s popularity, two years after it took power.
Allegations of vote buying had marred the run-up to the vote and the refusal of half of all respondents in the exit polls to reveal their choice of candidate left pollsters puzzled.
A recent survey by corruption watchdog Transparency International suggested that deepening poverty had prompted one in five Bulgarians to say they were ready to sell their vote.
That led to more than 20 international observers to monitor the election for the first time in years.
Four years after joining the EU, the average monthly salary in Bulgaria remains stuck at around 700 leva (US$490), while unemployment hit 9.4 percent last month.
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