SOFIA -- Results from Bulgaria's snap parliamentary elections show a neck-and-neck race between former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's GERB-led coalition and the anti-elite party called There Is Such a People (ITN).
With almost 99 percent of the ballots counted, TV entertainer Slavi Trifonov's ITN is leading by a razor-thin margin, with 23.91 percent, compared to GERB's 23.69 percent of the vote.
Trifonov, 54, announced plans to try to form a cabinet, which analysts say is a risky move that puts pressure on his potential partners and is difficult to assess.
Complicated negotiations that could last for weeks are likely to follow.
The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) had 13.5 percent, while the liberal, Western-leaning grouping Democratic Bulgaria had 12.56 percent.
The mostly ethnic Turkish-backed Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) had 10.66 percent, while Stand Up! Get Out! -- a new, center-left alliance launched by former Ombudsman Maya Manolova -- was at 5.03 percent.
About 6.7 million people were eligible to vote for members of the 240-seat parliament.
International observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said on July 12 that the elections "were competitive and fundamental freedoms were generally respected."
"Despite the short time frame for preparations, the establishment of a new Central Election Commission and the expanded use of voting machines, the elections were generally well administered," said Elona Gjebrea Hoxha, the head of the delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
"However, with the broadened use of these technologies, there will also be a need for further voter education, in order to increase proficiency and confidence in election voting technology," Hoxha said.
The parliamentary elections were held just three months after a previous, inconclusive vote.
A third election might also be an option, but in such a case Sofia may face more difficulties in accessing the European Union's multibillion- euro coronavirus recovery package.
Bulgaria is the EU's poorest member and perceived as one of its most corrupt. The campaign did little to allay that perception.
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 seats in the parliament.
Asked ahead of the election, 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 the April election.
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.
Final official results are expected on July 15.