SOFIA Bulgaria's scandal-tainted Socialist Party (BSP) picked a new leader on Sunday with the task of winning back disaffected voters before an early parliamentary election set for October 5 in the European Union's poorest member state.
The new chairman, Mihail Mikov, was the speaker of Bulgaria's parliament during the outgoing Socialist-led coalition, which lasted barely a year before resigning after the BSP's poor performance in European Parliament elections in May.
"It will be difficult but with you, those who supported me and the other candidates, we will get a result worthy of the 120-year history of the party," Mikov said after his election to lead the BSP, heir to Bulgaria's once-mighty Communist Party.
"(The BSP is) the party that protects the interests of the majority of Bulgarian citizens most sincerely," the 54-year-old father of two told reporters.
Mikov, a close political ally of his predecessor Sergei Stanishev, who is leaving to take up a seat in the European Parliament, faces a tough task rebuilding support for a party hurt by divisions and by the failures of the outgoing coalition.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski resigned last Wednesday after presiding over the Balkan country's worst banking crisis since the 1990s. The fate of Bulgaria's fourth largest lender remains unresolved.
The banking crisis has put renewed scrutiny on the investment climate in Bulgaria, deemed one of the most corrupt nations in the EU, as it struggles to revive a sluggish economy.
Oresharski's coalition, comprising the BSP and the ethnic Turkish MRF, faced mass street protests almost from the start of its rule over murky ties between politicians and businessmen. At the height of the protests last summer, tens of thousands of mostly younger, urban professional Bulgarians took to the streets of Sofia demanding the government's resignation.
Parliament will now be formally dissolved on August 6 and President Rosen Plevneliev will appoint a caretaker government to steer Bulgaria until the autumn election, which the center-right GERB party is tipped to win.
Earlier this year, the BSP suffered a big blow when Georgi Parvanov, a party grandee and former Bulgarian president, quit to set up a rival center-left movement called Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV).
Parvanov and his associates, including former foreign minister Ivaylo Kalfin, were formally expelled from the BSP.
In the May European Parliament polls, the BSP's share of the vote slumped to below 19 percent, prompting its coalition partner, the MRF, to back early national elections.
An opinion poll this month gave ex-prime minister Boiko Borisov's GERB a five-point lead over the BSP.
But political instability in Bulgaria seems likely to persist after the October election because Borisov has said he will not enter into a coalition with other parties if he fails to win an outright majority.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)