Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria's Mr. Big

Vessela SERGUEVA
Boyko Borisov speaking to reporters after his party's victory in Bulgarian elections

Boyko Borisov, who scored yet another comeback in snap elections Sunday, has long dominated the Bulgarian political scene in a manner befitting his imposing physical presence.

Born in 1959 in communist Bulgaria, the son of a policeman and a teacher, Borisov graduated from the Sofia police academy and worked as a firefighter before setting up his own security company in 1991.

He provided protection for Bulgaria's communist dictator Todor Zhivkov after he was pushed from power in 1989, and in the mid-1990s for former king Simeon Saxe Coburg after he returned from exile.

"I had the unique chance to interact, in an informal setting, with both the number one of communism and his antipode, the ex-monarch. What I heard from them taught me how to understand history and the mechanisms of power," Borisov told AFP in a 2009 interview.

Saxe Coburg, who later became prime minister, picked Borisov to be chief of staff in the interior ministry in 2001, and three years later promoted him to the highest rank in the police.

But Borisov had bigger ambitions.

He left the ministry to win election as mayor of Sofia as an independent candidate and in 2006 formed his own political party, Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB).

- Rampant corruption -

In 2009 he put his down-to-earth charm to good use to secure a victory for GERB in national elections, and became prime minister at the head of a minority government.

Once in power, he toured the country incessantly to inaugurate infrastructure projects but failed to enact structural reforms or to tackle the rampant corruption and organised crime that Brussels has long complained about.

Political analysts meanwhile highlighted his tendency to backtrack on important decisions if he found them unpopular.

The end came in the winter of 2012-13 when Bulgarians fed up with corruption and poverty -- one in five households live below the poverty line -- took to the streets across the country.

Resigning in February 2013, he still came first in elections three months later, but was unable to form a government. Instead the left and the Turkish minority party installed a technocrat administration.

But that government lasted just 14 months before throwing in the towel in July. Campaigning with an older-and-wiser image, GERB won the subsequent elections and this time managed to form a government.

- Shot down -

But again, reforms failed to get off the ground, in particular changes to the justice system and plans to help cash-strapped schools and the creaking health care system.

An anti-corruption law was rejected by parliament -- making for unfavourable comparisons with neighbouring Romania, which also joined the EU in 2007 but which has made progress tackling graft.

After much squabbling with his partners and several resignations, the end came in November last year when Rumen Radev, an air force commander backed by the Socialists, was elected president.

Borisov had expected his hand-picked candidate, the uninspiring Tsetska Tsacheva, to win hands down. As a result he quit as premier for the second time.

"If Bulgarians want a political crisis then they shall have one," Borisov said at the time.

- National saviour -

In the latest election, Borisov campaigned as a saviour of the nation in an uncertain world, with migrants in neighbouring Turkey wanting to enter the country and the Balkans facing renewed instability.

"Never has the situation in the Balkans been so warlike. GERB has to win the elections to ensure that Bulgaria remains an island of stability," he said on the campaign trail.

The strategy worked, with GERB coming first on Sunday again, fending off a strong challenge from the newly energised Socialists.

"Borisov had the wonderful idea of being reassuring, of adopting the role of unifier, of conciliator," said political analyst Haralan Alexandrov.

But after quitting twice before, it remains uncertain whether Borisov will be able to form a government, in particular one that can implement reforms and stay the course.