(Sofia) Barely a third of Bulgarians turned out on Sunday to elect their deputies, alongside the European elections, the sixth legislative elections in three years which gave victory to the conservatives, without however guaranteeing a way out of the deadlock.

The winds of change that blew across the Balkan country in the summer of 2020 have well and truly subsided. And the man who was driven from power after demonstrations against corruption, former Prime Minister Boïko Borissov, is back in force.

His Gerb party won nearly 25% of the vote, according to projections published in the evening by polling institutes based on partial counts.

He is well ahead of the reformers in the Continue the Change/Democratic Bulgaria coalition (14-15%) who failed to maintain momentum after massive anti-corruption protests in the summer of 2020.

Will Mr. Borissov succeed in forming a majority to govern? Parliament is extremely fragmented and negotiations promise to be complicated, with analysts already raising the specter of a seventh vote in the fall.

At the polling stations in Sofia, residents confided their exasperation and “weariness”.

For expert Ognyan Minchev, director of the Institute of Regional Studies, “there is no winner” as the participation rate is low (around 30%), unheard of for decades. “It’s a final warning from voters to the political class, an ultimatum” so that an agreement can finally be found, he commented on television.

Faced with the succession of elections and an unprecedented political crisis since the end of communism, the reform camp suffered a slap, while the veteran “Boïko” did well.

A former firefighter and bodyguard, this colossus with a shaved head conveys the image of a “strong man”, and this is precisely what 49% of Bulgarians are looking for according to a recent study by the Open Society Institute.

By voting in a school on the outskirts of the capital, the 64-year-old official posed as a guarantor of “stability”, at a time of great uncertainty in Europe with the war in Ukraine.

Enough to appeal in this poorest country in the European Union, where the current slump has put reforms on hold, postponed membership of the euro zone and compromised full accession to the Schengen free movement area. .

“The situation must finally calm down. We tried all kinds of experiments to replace Boyko Borissov, but no one succeeded,” says Blagovesta Petkova, a 44-year-old teacher.

But Mr Borissov’s critics point to his links to MP Delyan Peevski, a former media mogul targeted by US and British sanctions for corruption.

As head of the Turkish minority MDL party (some 16% of the vote), Mr Peevski could form a coalition with Gerb. He spoke on Sunday of the need for a “new start” so that “the country can develop”.

Their opponents warn against a return to the past, under the influence of “dark forces”.  

“We are at a crossroads,” warned Kiril Petkov, co-founder of CC who briefly led the government in 2022, while his ally Hristo Ivanov called for “not leaving Bulgaria in the hands of Peevski.”

Lost bet: they were sanctioned at the ballot box for having agreed to govern with their enemies from Gerb, after having derided them so much.

The two forces put aside their differences in June 2023 to form a pro-Western government and block the way for the interim cabinets set up by President Roumen Radev, sensitive to the Kremlin’s theses. But this fragile union only lasted nine months.

The election was also marked by a surge in forces favorable to the Kremlin against a backdrop of abundant disinformation in a country where nostalgia for the communist era remains strong.  

The pro-Russian nationalists of Vazrajdane (Renaissance) won about 14% of the vote, while a new party of similar persuasion, Velichie (Greatness), is expected to enter parliament.