SOFIA -- A newly formed anti-graft party appears to be winning Bulgaria's general elections with more than a quarter of the vote, according to partial official results, opening the door to difficult coalition talks in a deeply divided parliament.
Bulgarian voters went to the polls on November 14 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.
But early results from the third general elections in the European Union's poorest member state this year suggest the next parliament will be more fragmented than in April and July, with seven parties represented.
With more than 75 percent of ballots counted, We Continue the Change, a centrist movement led by two Harvard-educated former businessmen, had nearly 25.3 percent of vote, data from the Central Election Commission showed on November 15.
The center-right ruling Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov was second, with 22.4 percent.
Five other parties were set to enter the 240-seat chamber: 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.
In the race for the largely ceremonial presidency, incumbent Rumen Radev, who ran as an independent and received the support of three parties in parliament, was set to win a second five-year term, partial official results showed.
Radev had a commanding lead of 49.4 percent but may still have to face Anastas Gerdzhikov, who was second with 22.4 percent, in a runoff on November 21 as voter turnout remained below the needed 50 percent.
Final turnout figures were not yet released, although local media estimated it at 40 percent.
If confirmed, the victory of the We Continue the Change movement would represent a major surprise in the country of some 7 million people.
Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev formed the movement in September following massive street protests against corruption earlier this year.
"Bulgaria is taking a new path," the 41-year-old Petkov said after polls closed.
"Left, center, or right, it doesn't matter," he said, suggesting that his movement was willing to partner with all parties that would join the fight against corruption.
"If we can stop [corruption] and redistribute money for the well-being of the taxpayers, then we should be able to come to an agreement with several parties," he said.
The movement said that Petkov will be the candidate for prime minister while Vasilev would likely be nominated for the post of finance minister.
"I do not know a more prepared person in Bulgaria than Asen Vasilev for finance minister," Petkov told Bulgarian TV.
Petkov has said his movement is willing to partner with all parties that would join the fight against corruption in the European Union member.
"We will be the No. 1 political force," Petkov said. "We will have a majority of 121 deputies in the 240-seat parliament, and Bulgaria will have a regular coalition cabinet."
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 EU, 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.
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 GERB party.
That led to two inconclusive parliamentary polls in April and July, prompting this third attempt.