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Before vote, leading Bulgaria party pledges tight spending

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

By Sam Cage and Tsvetelia Tsolova

SOFIA (Reuters) - Two weeks before an election, the head of Bulgaria's largest party has refused to bow to demands of protesters who pushed him to resign as premier, pledging to keep a tight rein on spending.

Boiko Borisov, a former bodyguard to communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, stepped down as prime minister in February during a wave of demonstrations against low living standards in the European Union's poorest country.

But two months later, his centre-right GERB party - which provoked ire for maintaining fiscal stability to maintain a currency peg to the euro, and not spending more - has extended its lead in opinion polls over the Socialists, its main rival.

"Every nation chooses alone whether to crash or not," Borisov told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday. "I cannot give them anything optimistic, to please their wish to hear what they want to hear."

GERB has overseen a stagnating economy since it won power in 2009 but its ratings have risen since its resignation, as protesters have failed to form a single political force and other mainstream parties struggled to convince voters they could do a better job.

That means GERB may again be the largest party and governing as a minority with informal cooperation deals, leaving some Bulgarians wondering if the protests - and six people who set them themselves on fire - have changed anything.

Analysts say that would mean a risk of protests breaking out again should the next government fail to make a significant improvement in living standards, with nearly a quarter of Bulgaria's 7.3 million population living below the poverty line.

Millions have left to work abroad but unemployment at home still hit an 8-year high in February of 12 percent.

ROAD REPAIRS

Borisov, a heavily built and charismatic man whose forceful voice is accompanied by expressive hand gestures, has focused on overhauling Bulgaria's outdated roads to make business easier. As Sofia mayor, would connect with voters by showing up on the capital's streets to oversee the repair of pot-holes.

His government cut Bulgaria's budget deficit and public debt is one of the lowest in the EU at about 17 percent of output. But his policies, including wage and pension freezes and failure to root out rampant corruption, alienated many.

Referring to the Socialists as communists, saying they are the same group as governed before the 1989 revolution, Borisov said their promise to create 250,000 new jobs was unrealistic.

If GERB was in power, it would keep a flat corporate and income tax rate of 10 percent and push on with using EU cash for road building and energy efficiency combined with private investment in areas such as making car parts, that could create tens of thousands of jobs, he said.

While he would not comment on possible coalition deals, Borisov said if GERB won 100 from a total 240 seats in the May 12 poll - or 42 percent - he would aim to form a government, probably with unofficial backing from smaller parties.

That could come from the nationalist Attack or pro-business Bulgaria for the Citizens, though Borisov ruled out working with the Socialists.

"It will be very, very bad if Bulgaria fails to form a government. But it will be worse if it forms a government at any cost." (Editing by Alison Williams)

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/130424/vote-leading-bulgaria-party-pledges-tight-spending