Socialist-Backed General Rumen Radev Leads Bulgarian Presidential Vote

Rumen Radev
Rumen Radev, presidential candidate of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, meets supporters during an election rally in Karlovo, Bulgaria, November 4. Peter Ganev/Reuters

Socialist-backed candidate General Rumen Radev has won the first round of Bulgaria's presidential election, which could prompt a snap parliamentary election, Bulgarian TV channel BTV has reported.

Radev, who is supported by the pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), won 25.4 percent of the Sunday vote, narrowly beating ruling center-right GERB's Tsetska Tsacheva, who won 21.9 percent of the vote. The nationalist Krasimir Karakachanov finished third with just 15 percent and will not stand in next Sunday's runoff.

While the president's role in Bulgaria is largely ceremonial, the election's outcome could lead to snap parliamentary elections as GERB currently leads a minority coalition government in a fragmented parliament. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has said that if the GERB candidate loses the vote, he will call for early general elections immediately.

While Radev has voiced support for Bulgaria's membership in the EU and NATO, he has spoken against sanctions on Russia and asked for relations with Moscow to be "harmonized" with Bulgaria's western commitments. Meanwhile, although her party backed EU sanctions on Russia, GERB's Tsacheva has said she will support initiatives to request some form of financial compensation for Bulgaria from trade losses.

Radev has also been critical of the current government's support for Ukraine's claim over Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. "Of course, there is a violation of international law. That is a fact," he said of the annexation in an interview with Bulgaria's state TV channel. "But it is a fact that at the moment a Russian flag is waving over Crimea."

The former air force commander, who is now a favorite to become the country's next president, will likely attract much of the anti-GERB vote from other candidates on Sunday.

Following the end of vote-counting Monday night, Radev announced his acceptance of Tsacheva's invite to a televized debate, ahead of Sunday's second vote.

Bulgaria has had four governments since 2013, when Borisov first tendered his government's resignation in the wake of protests about rising energy prices. What followed was two interim governments of technocrats and an attempt by BSP to form a coalition government without GERB. Although GERB won the elections in November 2014, the party failed to assemble a majority government, relying on smaller coalition partners and support from the opposition to pass laws.

Should a new parliamentary election take place, the final presidential poll would be an indicator of whether any party can form a majority government, though Teneo Intelligence predicts another hung parliament is likely.