More than 6.7 million Bulgarians are eligible to vote, but pollsters expect a low turnout due to COVID fears.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s centre-right GERB party is set to win the most votes from Sunday’s election, data from the central electoral commission showed on Monday, but it may struggle to muster a majority.
With 25.6 percent of votes after two-thirds of ballots were counted, Borissov, 61, who has dominated Bulgarian politics for more than a decade, will have the largest party in the next parliament.
But anger over corruption weighed on the campaign period, and he could find it hard to build a coalition.
The new anti-establishment party, There Is Such a People, of popular TV host and singer Slavi Trifonov, was running second with 18.3 percent of votes, followed by the opposition Socialists with 14.9 percent, data showed.
Full official results are expected on Thursday.
Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Sofia, said Bulgaria could be heading towards an “unprecedented situation” with the need for a coalition government.
“It could end up being some sort of limbo period as Bulgarian politicians try to work a way through and see if they can establish some sort of government,” he said.
Borissov has few natural coalition partners in a fragmented legislature, with most groupings rejecting direct cooperation with GERB.
There could be weeks of talks, or even another election, meaning Bulgaria may have difficulty tapping the EU’s 750-billion-euro ($884bn) Recovery Fund aimed at helping rebuild economies across the bloc after the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking before the official results were released, Borissov said GERB had won the vote and called on opposition leaders to consider a broad, expert government that would focus on bringing EU cash to the country.
Such a government could have a limited life until December, Borissov said.
“I offer you peace. I offer you to put forward experts, to take responsibility,” he said in a video streamed on Facebook. “This is my proposal for all, enjoy the results for two, three days and then consider – what is stable and what is not.”
A former firefighter and bodyguard, Borissov sought to showcase his successes in modernising Bulgaria’s creaking infrastructure in a low-key campaign after huge anti-corruption rallies last year eroded his popularity.
“We are seeing the outlines of one new Bulgaria, where Borissov can continue to win elections with his huge administrative and financial resources, but cannot hold on to power,” said Hristo Ivanov, a leader of the anti-corruption Democratic Bulgaria party.
The emergence of Trifonov’s There is Such a People party further complicates Borissov’s coalition-building options.
Trifonov, 54, whose concerts peppered with patriotic songs have attracted thousands, has ruled out governing with GERB or the Socialists.
Among other parties in the running, the anti-corruption grouping Democratic Bulgaria and centre-left alliance Stand Up! Mafia Out!, which were behind massive protests seeking to topple Borissov last year, were on 10.3 percent and 5 percent respectively.
The MRF party, with its support base among ethnic minorities, had 9 percent of votes counted, while the nationalist VMRO, the current coalition partner of GERB, was at 3.6 percent, below the 4 percent threshold for parliamentary entry, according to the data for 67 percent of ballots counted.
More than 6.7 million Bulgarians were eligible to vote in Sunday’s poll.
Turnout figures were being keenly watched for any indication that coronavirus infection fears could have kept some voters away, especially among the opposition Socialists’ older electorate.
Bulgaria ranks as the EU’s most corrupt member state according to Transparency International.
A recent United States report on human rights also highlighted serious problems with judicial independence and media freedom in the country.
President Rumen Radev, who supported last year’s anti-government protests and has been a vehement critic of Borissov, said he had “voted against the destruction of the rule of law”.
“These elections are a step towards returning to normality,” he added.