SOFIA -- Bulgaria’s snap parliamentary elections on July 11 failed to produce a clear winner, with There Is Such A People, an anti-elites party, narrowly leading former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's GERB party, exit polls show.
A survey by Gallup International showed the There Is Such A People party, led by popular television entertainer Slavi Trifonov, with 23.2 percent, ahead of GERB, which was on 23 percent.
Alpha Research also put the There Is Such A People party with 24 percent and GERB at 23.5 percent.
The snap parliamentary elections were held just three months after a previous, inconclusive vote.
New allegations of misuse of government funds by administrations led by Borisov's GERB sapped support for the party in the run-up to the vote. In all, 23 parties and coalitions were vying for the 240 seats in parliament.
Bulgaria is the European Union’s poorest nation and perceived as one of its most corrupt. The campaign did little to allay that perception.
“This election is being waged over very fundamental democratic questions: How do we improve government performance and who will be the best managers of the government,” Bobby Philips, a political science professor at American University in Bulgaria, told RFE/RL, adding that “divisive ethnic or external enemy rhetoric” was largely absent in the election campaign.
Asked ahead of the election what he hoped from the vote, President Rumen Radev said he wanted a government that was more attentive to Bulgarians' needs, "a state that belongs to, and works in, the public interest, not for hidden circles."
"I strongly hope that the parties will approach their work much more constructively and much more responsibly, in order to meet the expectations of the citizens," he said after casting his ballot.
Borisov, who has led the government three times, has found success in previous campaigns through a combination of populist rhetoric and pro-Western slogans.
But massive street protests last year sparked by accusations that Borisov and his government were protecting oligarchs, refusing to reform the judiciary, and suppressing freedom of speech finally took their toll on the 62-year-old's popularity.
An April 4 vote ended in a stalemate with no party able to cobble together a majority coalition.
Radev in May installed an interim government that opened investigations into alleged corruption, including accusations that dozens of opposition politicians were illegally wiretapped before April elections. Caretaker officials also alleged that billions of dollars of public funds were funneled to certain private companies through a process that lacked transparency.
Bulgaria, which is also a member of NATO, has been chided by its Western partners over corruption and backsliding on the rule of law and a free press.
In Transparency International's 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index, Bulgaria ranked 69th, tied with Romania and Hungary as the worst in the EU.
Last month, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against former member of parliament Delyan Peevski, prominent businessman Vassil Bozhkov, and ex-national security official Ilko Zhelyazkov for their "extensive roles" in corruption in Bulgaria. It also placed sanctions on 64 entities said to be linked to them.
The U.S. Treasury Department said the move was its single biggest action targeting corruption to date anywhere in the world under the Global Magnitsky Act, which bans entry to the United States of any sanctioned person. It also blocks any U.S.-based property, including overseas U.S. dollar accounts, held by those sanctioned, and prevents U.S. entities from doing business with them.
In the wake of the corruption allegations, Trifonov's party had taken a narrow lead in opinion polls conducted ahead of the election.
Analysts said There Is Such A People could try to form a coalition government with the liberal Democratic Bulgaria alliance and the reform-oriented Stand Up! Get Out! -- a party recently created by former ombudsman Maya Manolova.
However, the three parties would still likely fail to get the majority needed to form a government and could be forced to seek support from some members of either the Socialist Party or the Movement For Rights And Freedom.
Slightly more than 3 million citizens -- or about half the eligible population -- were expected to vote, according to polling agencies.
The Central Electoral Commission will start to post official results on its website later in the night.