Bulgarian GERB ahead in election, but coalition outlook uncertain

Leader of GERB party Boyko Borissov speaks at an election rally, ahead of October 2 snap elections, in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, September 30, 2022. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

SOFIA (Reuters) -Bulgaria's GERB party of ex-Prime Minister Boyko Borissov looked set for a narrow win in Sunday's election, the fourth in less two years, as voters sought predictability from a former leader amid steep inflation and the war in Ukraine.

Exit polls by Gallup International and Alpha Research showed the centre-right GERB with 23.6%-25.5% of ballots. Its main rival, the reformist We Continue the Change of Kiril Petkov, whose cabinet collapsed in June, was next with 19.5%-19.9%.

If confirmed, the result would herald tough coalition talks ahead that could still end in a hung parliament or even another election.

Either would prolong policy instability and raise the prospect of Sofia missing its 2024 target date for entry into the euro zone.

Many of Borissov's political adversaries accuse him of allowing widespread corruption to fester during his decade-long rule that ended last year, complicating efforts to put together a functioning majority.

But for some voters in the European Union's poorest member state, Borissov spells a promise of stability and diplomatic maturity needed to navigate Bulgaria's complex relationship with Russia.

Once Moscow's key ally in the EU, Sofia has turned away following Russia's Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, becoming the first EU member alongside Poland, an anti-Russian hawk, to see its gas supplies cut off by Gazprom.

During the campaign, Borissov appeared to thread carefully, saying he would toe the EU and NATO line on Russia policy but has also sent a signal to the pro-Russian electorate that he would be able to restore relations once the war ends.

"There is a war in the world... It is important for the country to stay on its Euro-Atlantic course," he said after casting his ballot.

Petkov, a 42-year-old Harvard graduate, who refuses to govern with Borissov, said on Sunday Bulgarians were choosing between the politics of the transition period that was marred by endemic graft and a more transparent Bulgaria that would be a reliable EU member.

Analysts say political parties, aware of economic risks from the war in Ukraine, a difficult winter ahead and voters' frustration with political instability, could shelve their differences and opt for a technocrat government.

"Many Bulgarians expect that compromises will be made and want to see a government. It will not be easy, but that is what the politicians are for," Boryana Dimitrova, with pollster Alpha Research, said after exit polls were released.

Up to six other groups were expected to enter parliament, including the ethnic Turkish MRF party, the Socialists and the pro-Russian, nationalist Revival.

(Reporting by Tsvetelia TsolovaEditing by Nick Macfie, Gareth Jones, Justyna Pawlak and Frances Kerry)

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