Bulgaria's Boyko Borisov: tough enough to be PM again?

Former bodyguard and prime minister Boyko Borisov, whose party -- according to exit polls -- came first in Bulgarian elections on Sunday but without a majority, is as charismatic as he is tough.

But the dramatic way his first term ended in February makes it clear that these qualities may not be enough to tackle the deep problems faced by the European Union's poorest country.

And before he even tries, first he needs to form a government. After winning just between 30.3 and 33 percent of the vote, this will be a difficult task.

The 53-year-old and his government quit in February after anger about poverty, utility prices and corruption erupted into sometimes violent mass street protests. Seven people set themselves on fire.

Six years after former communist Bulgaria joined the European Union, almost a quarter of Bulgarians live below the official poverty line, living standards are falling and poverty is on the rise.

The burly bruiser claimed he had been appalled by the sight of blood at a Sofia rally that got out of hand the night before he resigned, but analysts detected crocodile tears.

Instead they saw it as a shrewd tactical move that left Borisov's right-wing GERB party alive to fight another day, instead of having to deal with public anger for the five months it had left to govern.

Nevertheless the strain did show, with the fit and healthy keen footballer and tennis player hospitalised twice for severe hypertension.

The son of a police officer and a primary school teacher, Borisov graduated from a police academy in Sofia and worked as a firefighter before setting up his own security company in 1991.

He notably provided protection for Bulgaria's ex-communist dictator Todor Zhivkov after his ouster in 1989, and in the mid-1990s for former king Simeon Saxe Coburg, who returned to Bulgaria after 50 years in 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 comprehend history and the mechanisms of power," Borisov told AFP in a 2009 interview.

Borisov started his swift rise in politics in 2001 when Saxe Coburg formed a centre-right government and named him chief of staff of the interior ministry.

In 2004, he was promoted to lieutenant general, the highest possible police rank, but quit the ministry a year later to win the mayoral election in the capital Sofia as an independent.

He won re-election as mayor in November 2007, only stepping down to take the premiership -- having formed GERB in 2006 -- and winning July 2009 polls as the head of a minority government.

Once in power, he toured the country incessantly to inaugurate infrastructure projects that he put forward as one of his administration's main achievements. Another was ensuring macroeconomic stability in the global financial crisis.

But drastic spending cuts and frozen incomes hit back in February, when doubling power bills set the spark for this winter's demonstrations.

Accused of concentrating too much power in his own hands, economists say he failed to make good on election promises of healthcare, education, pension and social security reforms.

Anxious to live up to the expectations of the European Commission, the former top cop had also pledged to wage a tough fight against organised crime and corruption. He said he gave up many friendships to avoid accusations of cronyism.

But wiretaps leaked in the media revealed that Borisov personally protected a beer boss from customs agency checks and, just recently, summoned Sofia's chief prosecutor to discuss details of a bribery probe against his farming minister.

His bodyguard past has also raised eyebrows in diplomatic circles, with a leaked 2006 US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks evoking his alleged "close social and business ties to influential mafia figures" in the past.

The discovery of an extra 350,000 ballot sheets for Sunday's election also led the opposition to accuse Borisov of trying to steal victory, and his campaign manager and former interior minister has been accused of ordering wiretaps on political rivals.