Socialist-backed candidate Rumen Radev, who has called for an end to European Union sanctions against Russia, won the first round of Bulgaria's presidential election, partial official results showed on Monday.
Radev's close-fought victory over ruling party candidate Tsetska Tsacheva makes the former air force commander the favorite to win a run-off on Sunday, a result that could bring the Black Sea state politically closer to Russia.
Results from 86 percent of polling stations showed Radev, 53, winning 25.8 percent of the vote. Center-right candidate Tsacheva, who had been expected to win narrowly, was at 22 percent.
A Radev victory in the run-off could usher in months of political instability after Prime Minister Boiko Borisov signaled he may quit if his candidate Tsacheva loses.
Radev new to politics
Radev, a jet fighter pilot and novice to politics, has tapped into public anger with political elites and fears about immigration, and vowed not to make the Balkan country a "migrant ghetto."
"The hope for a change is already tangible. People want to see more security and well functioning institutions," he said after his win.
Tsacheva appealed for support in the run-off, saying victory for her opponent could put Bulgaria at odds with its EU and NATO allies and trigger a spike in corruption.
"It is important to know what kind of Bulgaria we want to see — a country isolated internationally, with EU aid frozen and ... corruption — things that the Socialists trigger when they take power — or a Bulgaria whose voice is heard in Brussels," she said.
Improved relations with Russia
Under Bulgaria's constitution, the president's job is mostly ceremonial, but whoever holds the post can influence policy, veto legislation and sign international treaties.
The country of 7.2 million people already has warmer ties with Russia than most of its EU peers. Radev has made it clear he believes NATO member Bulgaria should focus more on its economic and political ties with Moscow, which has been under EU sanctions since it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Borisov's minority coalition government took office two years ago, bringing political stability after a year of anti-corruption protests and prompting the EU to resume aid flows it had suspended.
But his failure to show tangible results in fighting rampant graft and overhauling inefficient sectors like healthcare and education have eroded his popularity.