Official results in Bulgaria have given the pro-Western party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov victory in national parliamentary elections, and the pro-Russia Socialists have conceded defeat.
With 90 percent of the votes counted by early March 27, Borisov’s GERB had 32.58 percent of the vote, while the Socialist Party (BSP) had 26.8 percent. The numbers confirm projections from separate exit polls by Alpha Research and Gallup International Balkan.
The United Patriots nationalist alliance had 9.2 percent of the vote. Ethnic Turkish MRF party had 8.9 percent, and populist party Will had 4.1 percent.
Final results are expected on March 30.
Borisov would then receive the mandate to form his third cabinet. He would need to form a coalition with a wide array of smaller parties to take power.
The vote was being closely watched for indications of the future direction of the European Union and NATO member state.
GERB is expected to continue to push for stronger ties with the West, while the Socialists would likely favor closer links to Moscow.
Borisov, nevertheless, will still have to maneuver between East and West to help keep tensions at bay in the nation, where the economy remains highly dependent on Russia.
The leader of the Socialists, Kornelia Ninova, conceded defeat late on March 26 but said her party would look at options to form a government should GERB fail to do so.
"We want to congratulate winners GERB," Ninova told reporters.
“If they fail to form a government and we receive a mandate, we will try to form a Bulgarian government," she added.
Despite her lean toward Moscow, Ninova has said she would maintain EU and NATO membership.
Bulgaria is scheduled to take over the EU Presidency on January 1, 2018.
If Borisov does in fact return to power, it will mark another comeback in the longtime politician’s career.
Since 2009, he has twice led the country as prime minister, both times resigning early.
He quit in February 2013 when Bulgarians took to the streets to protest poverty and corruption.
He returned three months later, only to resign again after the November 2016 elections, when Rumen Radev, an Air Force commander backed by the Socialists, was elected president.
Borisov will now turn his attention to finding a coalition partner.
Bulgaria has a Muslim population of about 700,000, most of them ethnic Turks, and it is likely parties representing that segment will play a role in any coalition-building efforts, along with several nationalist parties that have been gaining in popularity.
GERB is likely to turn first to the United Patriots nationalist alliance, observers say.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP