Harvard-educated duo vies for power in Bulgaria

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Unknown to the public six months ago, two Harvard graduates have seen their profiles rise so swiftly that they have a chance to win power at elections in Bulgaria this weekend.

Their goal is to wipe out decades of corruption if they can cobble together a coalition after parliamentary elections, the third this year for the Balkan country of seven million people.

"Zero corruption is a must," Kiril Petkov, 41, whose looks resemble Hollywood star John Travolta according to some, told AFP in an interview.

His colleague, Asen Vasilev, 44, argues that money being lost due to corruption and mismanagement should be re-channelled to invest in health care and other social services as the EU's poorest member faces a disastrous fourth coronavirus pandemic wave.

- From streets to government -

Petkov and Vasilev, who met at the MBA programme at Harvard University, were among thousands who took to the streets in summer protests last year.

The massive anti-graft rallies accused conservative Boyko Borisov of corruption under his virtually uninterrupted decade-long rule, which came to an end in April when elections returned a fragmented parliament.

With no party able to form a government, Socialist-backed President Rumen Radev tasked an interim cabinet to run the country with Petkov as economy minister and Vasilev as finance minister.

They quickly became the stars of the team, garnering praise for their efficient management and uncompromising approach to corruption.

Buoyed by this popularity, the two men founded their own movement, We Continue the Change, in September, attracting other Bulgarian alumni from renowned international universities.

"This career in politics is quite an unexpected thing for us," said Vasilev, who previously worked as a consultant in the US.

Both he and Petkov, who grew up in Canada, returned to Bulgaria about fifteen years ago as the country was joining the EU.

Creating their own companies, both men also taught a Harvard-supported programme at the University of Sofia.

Despite their elite education and years abroad, they say they are "pragmatists" who can represent the people.

"The government's role is to not misuse the funds but invest them efficiently almost as a business would -- you want to have a return on investment on taxpayers' money," Petkov told AFP during the interview in their party's office in Sofia.

On Sunday, they hope to gather enough votes to convince other anti-Borisov parties to join them to replace the public prosecutor -- accused of shielding corruption -- and set up a new agency to fight graft.

"We know it's going to be hard (to form a government) but I don't think it's impossible as long as there are clear goals and also as long as there is open discussion," Vasilev said.

"The only position that we are unwilling to bend on is ending corruption. Everything else is negotiable."

According to the latest polls, We Continue the Change could come second with at least 13 percent, behind Borisov's GERB, which is expected to get more than 22 percent.

- Latest 'messiahs' -

At a meeting with supporters in the west of the country on Tuesday, dozens thronged Petkov to ask him questions, get his autograph and take photos with him.

"He has vision, brain and intellect," a pensioner who refused to give her name told AFP.

"I hope that they will help us to work for a better country, a country where young people want to stay," Yana Stoitseva, a 39-year-old forestry engineer, said.

Gallup International Balkan analyst Parvan Simeonov said like others before them, the Harvard duo evoke a kind of "magic, irrational love" from Bulgarians as the latest "messiahs".

On the social network Facebook, groups supporting the men have tens of thousands of followers.

Bulgarians like to become infatuated with new figures, says Simeonov, who compares the current enthusiasm to that which led former bodyguard Borisov to power.

More recently, the anti-establishment singer Slavi Trifonov pulled off a victory in the most recent elections in July, but then failed to get the support from other parties to form a government.


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