Blow for Bulgarian PM in presidential poll

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Sofia (AFP) - Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov suffered an embarrassing setback in the first round of presidential elections Sunday, with projections suggesting his nominee was beaten by a left-leaning opposition candidate.

Tsetska Tsacheva won 22.3 percent of the vote behind Rumen Radev on 24.9 percent, the candidate of the opposition Socialists seen as more sympathetic to Russia, according to a projection from Gallup based on 75 percent of votes counted.

The result, if confirmed, sets up a tight runoff contest on November 13 between Tsacheva, 58, who is speaker of parliament, and former air force commander and MiG pilot Radev, 53.

The centre-right Borisov, 57, had said before the election that if Tsacheva failed to come first in the first round, he would call early elections.

Late Sunday however he said that he would only quit if Tsacheva loses the runoff.

"Next Monday, as I already said -- if we lose the ballot, which I hope we won't, we will go for early elections, we will exit the government," Borisov told reporters.

New elections could plunge the EU's poorest and arguably most corrupt country -- the average monthly salary is just 480 euros ($535) -- into renewed political turmoil.

Burly former bodyguard and police chief Borisov has injected some much-needed stability into Bulgaria since becoming premier for the second time in late 2014.

Prior to that the south-eastern European country went through a long period of upheaval involving mass protests and a string of elections.

But along with a failure to implement major reforms, Borisov appears to have miscalculated badly in putting forward the straight-laced Tsacheva to become president.

"People have said no to apathy and have voted for change," Radev said late Sunday.

"This is a historic moment. GERB has never lost. There will be elections," said Gallup analyst Parvan Simeonov.

- East or West? -

The job of Bulgarian president is largely ceremonial but he or she -- Tsacheva would be the first woman in the job -- is still a respected figure with some powers.

And for an ex-communist country walking the East-West tightrope, both Moscow and Brussels will be watching the election outcome closely.

NATO member Bulgaria last September angered Moscow by banning Russian supply flights to Syria from using its airspace.

Outgoing president Rosen Pleneviev has been outspoken in his criticism of Russia and its President Vladimir Putin.

But at the same time Bulgaria's economy is hugely reliant on Russia, particularly in gas, and the two have deep historical and cultural ties. In 2010 Borisov gave Putin a puppy.

Radev told local radio in a recent interview: "We have lost a lot by declaring Russia more or less an enemy."

In addition he has called for EU sanctions on Russia, imposed because of Ukraine, to be lifted -- a position shared by Tsacheva until Borisov called her back into line.

Radev has also said however that "a necessary improvement in relations with Russia doesn't mean a retreat from Euro-Atlantic values."

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