Polls: Bulgaria's center-right party leading vote

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said Sunday he was prepared to take "all risks" to form a government after exit polls indicated his party had finished far ahead of its rivals but well short of a majority in parliamentary elections.

Borisov's main rival, the Socialists, conceded as their spokesman, Atanas Merdzhanov, said the party suffered a "heavy defeat."

The Alpha Research exit poll said Borisov's GERB party won 33 percent of the votes, with the Socialists at 16.5 percent. An exit poll by Gallup International had Borisov's party with 34 percent and the Socialists with 16 percent.

Official results are expected Monday.

Parties have to win at least 4 percent of the votes to get seats in 240-seat Parliament, and six parties in addition to GERB and the Socialists are expected to do that. That could make forming a coalition government difficult.

Commenting on early results, Borisov said it would be very difficult to form a government but left the door open for talks with possible coalition partners.

"Under this configuration, I do not see how a government can be formed," Borisov told reporters. However, he said he was prepared to take "all risks" to govern the country.

Borisov, 55, headed a minority government between 2009, when his party took nearly 40 percent of the vote, and 2013 when he resigned amid sometimes violent protests against poverty, high utility bills and corruption.

The Socialists, who took 27 percent of the vote in an election last year, formed a coalition government which commanded exactly half the votes in the last parliament.

Voter turnout was below 50 percent, the lowest in the 25 years since Bulgaria shook off communism.

The nation of 7.3 million — the poorest in the EU — is struggling with corruption and a widespread disillusionment with the governing elite. A weak economic recovery is now threatened by a Russian ban on European food imports and a major crisis in the country's fourth-largest bank.

Bulgaria belongs to NATO and the 28-nation European Union but many residents feel a strong kinship to Russia, and the country's extensive dependence on Russian oil and gas leaves it vulnerable to meddling by the Kremlin.

For anti-monopoly reasons, the EU has pressured Bulgaria to withdraw from the South Stream pipeline project and the work has stalled. South Stream aims to transport gas from Russia through the Black Sea to Bulgaria and other European countries, bypassing Ukraine's pipelines.

Borisov says he would continue building South Stream only if the EU approved — in sharp contrast with the Socialists, who want the project at any price. Many Bulgarians back the pipeline, eager for the jobs they hope it will bring.