In Bulgaria's prime ministerial race, a former wrestler scores a big takedown

Boyko Borisov, the no-nonsense mayor of Sofia, must now grapple with Bulgaria's economic woes and corruption.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Wrestler, karate coach, bodyguard, top cop, mayor of Sofia, and now prime minister. Boyko Borisov will have one of the more eclectic resumes among European heads of government when he becomes Bulgarian premier in the wake of his overwhelming election victory Sunday.

Mr. Borisov's Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB, which translates as "coat of arms") won a reported 40 percent of the vote, trouncing the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) of Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev, which scored 18 percent.

GERB is forecast to send 116 deputies to the 240-seat parliament, just short of a majority. It is expected to form a government with the Blue Coalition, a descendant of the right-of-center movement that governed between 1997 and 2001, and took nearly 7 percent of the vote, giving it a projected 15 seats. The scale of GERB's victory was unexpected – it had polled less than 25 percent in the European elections last month.

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Borisov will now have to tackle the problems that contributed to the defeat of Mr. Stanishev's three-party administration, including corruption, unchecked organized crime, suspended funding from the European Union, and Bulgaria's controversial but vital role in European energy security. Add to this an economy expected to contract by 2 percent this year and concerns about ethnic tensions, and there is a substantial in-box awaiting the triumphant mayor.

Fiery rhetoric, but pro-business

Borisov, who was bodyguard to Communist leader Todor Zhivkov and former king and prime minister Simeon II, has built his reputation as a straight-talking man of action who takes on an entrenched political elite.

His statements have occasionally suggested that he is more maverick populist than reformer; he has been quoted as referring to Bulgaria's ethnic Turkish and Roma minorities, as well as pensioners, as "bad material," and has accused the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a junior partner in Stanishev's coalition, which is largely supported by Turks, of stoking fears of terrorism.

Though these comments have been manipulated by his opponents, he has openly compared the Socialists to "the children of Hitler, Göring, and Göbbels," due to their links to the Communist regime.

But this image has clearly reaped political rewards, with Bulgarians opting for the burly and charismatic Borisov after a string of prime ministers whose smooth air of professionalism failed to secure any a second term.

Investors are also likely to give GERB the benefit of the doubt, despite its somewhat threadbare policy platform.

The expectation is that Borisov will surround himself with a cabinet of technocrats, fulfilling GERB's claims to being a center-right party with a pro-business agenda, according to Ivan Krastev, a political analyst. As evidence, he points to Simeon Dyankov, formerly a senior economist at the World Bank, who is tipped to become Finance Minister.

"GERB's policy prescriptions could have been more detailed, but Dyankov is well aware of reforms made in other countries," says Svetla Kostadinova, executive director of the Sofia-based Institute for Market Economics. "If he's appointed, we should see the quick implementation of changes that are quite vital for Bulgaria."

A crossroads of energy and graft

The incoming government must also address Bulgaria's opaque public finances and "reassure our European partners that corruption will no longer be such a big issue" in order to release more than half a billion euros from Brussels. Those funds have been frozen over the past two years amid accusations of graft and a failure to address organized crime in the Balkan country, Ms. Kostadinova adds.

It is far from obvious what concrete measures can and will be made to root out these problems, but Borisov has clearly staked his reputation on doing so.

Perhaps even more important from a European perspective will be the new government's approach to energy policy. A gas crisis in January, when Moscow shut off pipelines to Ukraine, temporarily cutting supply to Bulgaria, cruelly highlighted the country's overreliance on Russian fuel.

Bulgaria lies on the route of both Gazprom's South Stream gas pipeline and the proposed Nabucco project, an EU and US-backed line intended to diversify the continent's supply away from the Russian monopolist. The outgoing government defied expert opinion by claiming that the two schemes were not mutually exclusive; its successor may have to make a hard choice one way or the other.

Unusual as Barisov's background may be, Bulgarians and the international community alike will be hoping that their new leader can reinvigorate the drawn-out process of reform and European normalization that began with the fall of Communism almost 20 years ago.

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