SOFIA Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boiko Borisov is set to tighten his grip on power in the European Union's poorest member in presidential and local elections on Sunday, after a campaign marred by protests and violence.
Results will probably show the popularity of Borisov's GERB party has fallen since it took power in 2009 as the campaign highlighted its struggle to address unemployment, graft and the fragile position of ethnic minorities.
Rallies against Roma and corruption rocked Bulgaria's cities last month and a bomb last week blew up the car of a popular journalist, coinciding with a visit of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to Sofia.
But this is unlikely to have a significant impact on the final outcome and opinion polls show Borisov's close ally Rosen Plevneliev is favourite to win the vote to become president, a largely ceremonial role.
Any unhappiness with GERB has so far not translated into support for the nationalist Attack party, which came second in the 2006 presidential race, but is now languishing on just 4 percent in polls.
"GERB has decided to use Plevneliev's momentum and gain control over the presidential institution," said Ivan Kotev, an analyst at consultancy Candole. "Overall, GERB is quietly gaining complete dominance over the entire political system."
Borisov captured the imagination of many Bulgarians with his brash style and zeal for action, polling nearly 40 percent in 2009 on a reformist ticket and pledges to smash organised crime and widespread corruption.
His centre-right GERB party still tops polls, even though he has failed to deliver on many of those promises, and these elections are effectively a referendum on Borisov's performance. Results will also indicate whether the opposition Socialists have found their feet again after their crushing defeat in 2009.
A win for Plevneliev -- more popular personally than Borisov thanks to his road-building schemes in his prior role as construction minister -- would deny the opposition Socialists a high profile platform. The outgoing president, Georgi Parvanov, is a Socialist.
It could give Borisov the confidence to push ahead with more reforms to put Bulgaria on a path to catch up with the rest of the EU, but analysts say he is more likely to sit tight, avoid alienating too many voters and cling on to power with reduced support in a 2013 parliamentary election.
He may be helped by economic recovery, though expected growth below 3 percent does little to narrow the gap to western Europe or even other former communist states like Poland and the Czech Republic.
If no candidate polls more than 50 percent on Sunday, there will be a run-off on October 30 between the top two, probably Plevneliev and former foreign minister Ivailo Kalfin, nominated by the Socialists.
Former EU Commissioner Meglena Kuneva, an independent who is expected to gain support from voters dissatisfied with the political establishment, is in third place.
TICKING TIME BOMBS
Borisov's main achievement is a large-scale programme to upgrade the country's worn out roads and rail links which inspired GERB's campaign slogan, "We are Building Bulgaria."
Construction works have failed to quicken economic recovery, however, and delays in overhauling the inefficient state services like healthcare and public administration will limit potential growth in coming years.
Another potential problem is exposure to debt-laden Greece, whose banks control nearly 30 percent of Bulgaria's banking system.
"There are great many ripe, unsolved problems which will start going off like time bombs," said Boryana Dimitrova from polling agency Alpha Research.
Analysts doubt Borisov will undertake the promised sweeping reforms even if his GERB party scores a big win, and will instead focus on sustaining tight fiscal discipline -- which wins plenty of praise abroad but does little to improve the lot of Bulgarians, who have an average wage of 350 euros a month.
"Most probably GERB will carry on with what it has been doing so far ... trying to preserve the budget and country's overall state in survival mode in times of economic crisis," said Marchela Abrasheva of Gallup International.
Such policies will hardly help Bulgaria get rid of the "EU's poorest" tag but unless there is a drastic change for the worse, Borisov's approach may yet make him the first leader to win a second consecutive term since the fall of communism in 1989.
(Additional reporting by Sam Cage in Bucharest; Editing by Matthew Jones)