SOFIA--No clear winner has emerged in Bulgaria's parliamentary elections, the third held this year, exit polls showed on November 14, with the center-right GERB party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov in a neck-to-neck race with the anti-graft, We Continue the Change, led by two Harvard-educated former businessmen.
Alpha Research's exit poll showed GERB narrowly leading the election with 24.8 percent, while Gallup International saw the new faction, We Continue the Change, coming first with 25.7 percent. The other exit polls showed GERB leading.
Five other parties are said to have made it into the 240-seat chamber. They include the Socialist Party, the ethnic Turkish-backed Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), the anti-elite There is Such a People party , the liberal anti-corruption group Democratic Bulgaria , and the nationalist Revival party.
The results were released as polling stations closed in the country at 8 p.m. local time.
Bulgarian voters went to the polls to elect a parliament and a president in a bid to break a monthslong political deadlock and secure a government to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic as well as rising energy prices and endemic corruption.
The Central Election Commission said voter turnout was nearly 26% by 4 p.m., lower than in previous elections.
Failure to form a government could slow Bulgaria's plan to adopt the euro currency by 2024 and delay measures to soften the impact of high energy costs on consumers this winter.
A member of both NATO and the European Union, Bulgaria has been plagued by rampant corruption since overthrowing communism more than three decades ago. It is the EU's poorest member and routinely comes in at the bottom of the bloc for perceptions of corruption and media freedom.
Boyko Borisov, who was at the helm for more than a decade, stepped down as prime minister in April after widespread anti-corruption protests against him and his center-right GERB party, the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria.
That led to two inconclusive parliamentary polls in April and July, prompting this third attempt.
Opinion polls released ahead of the vote suggested Borisov’s GERB will be the party that wins the most seats up for grabs in the 240-seat National Assembly. But its lack of obvious coalition partners will likely lead to difficulties cobbling together the majority needed to govern.
In the race for the largely ceremonial presidency, a Gallup International exit poll suggested that incumbent Rumen Radev has a commanding lead but will still have to face runner-up Anastas Gerdzhikov in a runoff on November 21 as voter turnout remained below the requisite 50 percent.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time and closed at 8 p.m.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are monitoring the vote.
After casting his ballot in Bankya on the outskirts of Sofia, Borisov accused Radev of throwing the country into "chaos."
Radev, a vocal critic of Borisov, said he had voted for freedom, legality, and justice.
"These are the values I stand for," he said after voting in the capital.
One of the final opinion polls before the vote, conducted on November 11 by Alpha Research, gave GERB 24.1 percent support among likely voters. It was followed by We Continue the Change, a new centrist party, with 16.5 percent, and the leftist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) with 16 percent.
The same poll showed Democratic Bulgaria -- a coalition of three left parties -- with 10.2 percent, the anti-establishment There is Such a People (ITN), with 9.9 percent, and the DPS party at 9.8 percent, meaning all would secure seats in parliament, the National Assembly.
ITN, established in February 2020 by popular late-night talk-show host and folk-pop singer Slavi Trifonov, narrowly won the second 2021 elections on July 11, but failed to form a coalition government.
If GERB wins the most seats in the parliamentary election, Borisov told Bulgarian media he would not rule out seeking the support of DPS -- largely supported by members of Bulgaria's Muslim, Romany, and Turkish communities -- which he had in the past deemed political opponents. Borisov also named Democratic Bulgaria as "natural allies."
However, according to Ivaylo Ditchev, a Bulgarian political scientist, a coalition between GERB and DPS would be difficult to reach. Ditchev predicted in comments to RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service that talks on forming a new government will likely again be inconclusive, forcing yet another parliamentary poll.
We Continue the Change, established by Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev in September, could score big in the parliamentary elections, said Aleksey Pamporov, a political scientist at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.
"We were all laughing when they stated that they will do “left” policy with “right” instruments," but that is exactly what they are proposing. In terms of economy, energy, business, and tourism they are very right-minded. But in terms of social policies, education, healthcare they lean left," Pamporov told RFE/RL.
Petkov, 41, and Vasilev, 44, served for some four months as interim economy and finance ministers earlier this year, gaining public support for efforts to uncover wrongdoing in state institutions under GERB and Borisov.
In May, Petkov found that the state-run Bulgarian Development Bank, set up to support small business, had extended 946 million levs ($559.43 million) in loans to just eight companies.
Vasilev boasted of boosting tax collection by 2.5 billion levs by increasing controls on big businesses that operate with public and EU funds.
Two other parties, Stand Up.BG! We are coming! and the right-wing pro-Russian Vazrajdane (Rebirth) party were hovering in opinion polls just below the 4 percent threshold needed to win seats in parliament.
In the presidential election, Radev, who has maintained high approval ratings since he was elected in 2016, was leading in polling conducted by Alpha Research with 46.4 percent.
A former air force commander, Radev has the backing of several parties, including the BSP, ITN, and is a vocal critic of Borisov.
His strongest challenge should come from Anastas Gerdzhikov, who is backed by GERB, which has accused Radev of dividing the nation. The latest Alpha Research polling put Gerdzhikov at 28.3 percent.
Far behind in that poll in third was Mustafa Kradaya, the DPS candidate, with 7.1 percent, followed by Lozan Panov, the Democratic Bulgaria candidate, with 6.9 percent.
If no presidential candidate wins at least 50 percent in the first round, a runoff between the two leading vote-winners will be held a week later on November 21.