SOFIA: An anti-graft party was in a neck-and-neck race with the conservatives, according to exit polls on Sunday (Nov 14), in the third general election this year as Bulgaria fights its deadliest coronavirus wave.
We Continue the Change, led by two Harvard-educated former businessmen, garnered 23 per cent of the vote, just below nearly 25 per cent for three-time premier Boyko Borisov's GERB, exit polls showed.
Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, both in their 40s, formed the movement in September, tapping into frustrations as the country saw massive anti-graft protests last year.
With the EU's lowest Covid vaccination rate, the Balkan country is now also dealing with one of the world's highest pandemic death rates.
'FOR A BETTER LIFE'
Polling stations closed at 8pm.
Many voters had said they were disheartened by parties' failure to cobble together a workable coalition after votes in April and July returned fractured parliaments.
"I wish the elections are successful this time so that we have a new government for a better life," pensioner Stanka Lenkova, 73, said at a polling station on the outskirts of Sofia earlier Sunday.
Analysts have said they expect parties to try hard to form a government to end the worst political crisis since the fall of Communism, highlighting the need to tackle the raging pandemic.
The interim administration failed to impose stricter measures and stop new infections and deaths from spiralling upward.
Just 23 per cent of Bulgaria's 6.9 million people are fully vaccinated, while around 200 people have recently been dying each day in short-staffed hospitals.
Three COVID-19 patients also died early on Sunday when a fire broke out in a coronavirus hospital ward in the southeast, most likely caused by a cigarette smoked by one of the victims, according to the health ministry.
"I hope that political leaders learnt their lesson and that this will push them to negotiate," New Bulgarian University political science professor Antony Todorov told AFP.
"There's this feeling of chaos," he said.
Uncertainty coupled with rising electricity and gas prices has hit the economy.
Borisov's GERB party "exploits this feeling very well" with election posters calling for "Order in the chaos", Todorov said.
"We will do everything we can to end this chaos," Borisov told reporters as he cast his vote.
But observers say the 62-year-old, who has faced multiple revelations about alleged past misuse of public funds, is unlikely to return to power as he is seen as an "unacceptable" partner by most other parties.
Ahead of the election, Boryana Dimitrova of the Alpha Research institute said Bulgarians were "inclined to vote for the parties of change, which they consider capable of forming a government".
Earlier in the day, Petkov said the country, which is considered the EU's most corruption-prone member needed "a normal, operating government".
"It does not matter if you are left, centre or right. If we are able to stop this (corruption) and use money for the taxpayers' welfare, then we should be able to align with a lot of parties I hope," Petkov said after he cast his ballot in Sofia.
Dimitrova, however, warned the duo though "very enthusiastic" had little experience in politics and might end up leading an "unstable" coalition.
A first-round presidential vote is being held along with the parliamentary elections, with outgoing Socialist-backed president Rumen Radev running for a second five-year term as an independent.
Although Radev is a clear favourite among a total of 23 candidates, analysts expect the race to go into a run-off on Nov 21.