NEWS

Two young businessmen ride anti-graft message to top of Bulgarian politics

two-young-businessmen-ride-anti-graft-message-to-top-of-bulgarian-politics

Two young Harvard-educated entrepreneurs hope to use anti-corruption credentials earned during a brief stint in a caretaker government to break Bulgaria’s political deadlock in Sunday’s election and put the country on road to prosperity.

Graft has long been the dominant political topic in the EU’s poorest country, and voters have pinned their hopes on successive leaders pledging to clean up public life, only to see administrations crashing in scandals.

Kiril Petkov, 41, and Assen Vassilev, 44, set up their new centrist party, We Continue the Change, in September, and polls show they could become a key part of talks to form a new administration following two inconclusive elections since April.

“We are promising zero corruption. This is what we are going after. No small tolerance, nothing, zero. We are going to try to eradicate it,” Petkov told Reuters in an interview.

The group is running neck-and-neck with the leftist Socialists for second place ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary vote, giving it a fighting chance to lead talks on a coalition government.

Opinion polls show the centre-right GERB party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, ousted in the April election, will be the biggest party after Sunday’s vote. But it is short of allies, giving it little chance to form a government.

Serving for about four months as interim economy and finance ministers earlier this year, Petkov and Vassilev gained public support for efforts to uncover wrongdoing in state institutions under Borissov.

In May, Petkov found that state-run Bulgarian Development Bank, set up to support small business, had extended 946 million levs (€485.08 million) in loans to just eight companies.

Vassilev boasted of boosting tax collection by 2.5 billion levs (€1.28 billion) by increasing controls on big businesses that operate with public and EU funds.

“Between corruption and waste, you are looking at about 4 billion euros a year,” Vassilev said.

Petkov, who has filed documents to relinquish Canadian dual citizenship to qualify for office in Bulgaria, has invested in start ups and ran a successful probiotics company. Vassilev is also an entrepreneur and business consultant.

Supporters see their youthful charm and casual manner as a breath of fresh air, a particularly striking personal contrast with the burly, bullet-headed Borissov.

Their rivals say their emphasis on reforms is more a matter of style than substance, and conceals a drive for power which makes them just like other politicians. Some worry that they simply look and sound too good to be true.

Political wrangling prevented GERB’s opponents from building a government in the previous two elections this year. Petkov pledged things will be different this time.

“We are not going with an ego in the negotiations, we are going with a cause … You will see a very different mindset in the negotiations that are to come,” he said. [Reuters]