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Center-right party tops Bulgaria election; Socialists yield

Associated Press logo Associated Press 26/03/2017 VESELIN TOSHKOV, Associated Press
Bulgarian ex-Premier Boiko Borisov, leader of the center-right GERB party, speaks to media after voting, in Sofia, Bulgaria, Sunday, March 26, 2017. Bulgarians are heading to the polls for the third time in four years in a snap vote that could tilt the European Union's poorest member country closer to Russia as surveys put the center-right GERB party neck-and-neck with the Socialist Party. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda) © The Associated Press Bulgarian ex-Premier Boiko Borisov, leader of the center-right GERB party, speaks to media after voting, in Sofia, Bulgaria, Sunday, March 26, 2017. Bulgarians are heading to the polls for the third time in four years in a snap vote that could tilt the European Union's poorest member country closer to Russia as surveys put the center-right GERB party neck-and-neck with the Socialist Party. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

SOFIA, Bulgaria — The center-right GERB party of former Prime Minister Boiko Borisov took the lead in Bulgaria's parliamentary election on Sunday, a pair of exit polls showed, a result that if confirmed by official returns indicates support for the country keeping its European identity.

The Alpha Research exit poll said GERB won 32.2 percent of the vote, with the Socialist Party coming in second with 28 percent, while a separate exit poll by Gallup International Balkan had GERB with 32.8 percent and the Socialists with 28.4 percent.

The leader of the Socialists Party later conceded defeat and said the party would not take part in a coalition government with GERB.

Official results are expected Monday. If they confirm the exit polls, Borisov, a political maverick who combines man-in-the-street rhetoric with a pro-European Union disposition, will be handed a mandate to form his third cabinet.

GERB did not win enough votes to govern alone, and will likely form a coalition government with the United Patriots, an alliance of three nationalist parties that the exit polls showed placing third.

Borisov, 57, resigned as prime minister after his party lost the November 2016 presidential election. Parliament was dissolved in January, and the president appointed a caretaker government that will stay until a new government is formed.

Borisov said GERB had the "duty to form a government because this is the will of the people and because we triggered these early elections." He declined to say what parties may be in a future coalition, pending final results.

Support for the nationalist alliance reflected widespread anger over an influx of migrants to this southeastern European nation that borders Greece, Turkey and Romania, and over Turkey's open support for a party representing Bulgaria's sizeable Muslim minority.

Along with immigration, the election campaign focused on the future of the European Union, which Bulgaria joined in 2007, and the influence of Russia and Turkey on domestic politics.

Socialist Party leader Kornelia Ninova, who campaigned on forging closer relations with Russia, conceded defeat Sunday evening. Ninova congratulated GERB as the election's winner, and ruled out any option of serving in a coalition government with the center-right party.

The Socialists, a party made up mostly of ex-communists, want EU sanctions against Russia lifted and tried to woo voters with promises of higher salaries and pensions.

If "GERB fails to form a government, we will try to do so," Ninova said.

The GERB party's popularity faded during Borisov's previous term as prime minister because of the slow pace of reforms to eliminate graft and poverty and to overhaul the judicial system. Bulgaria is the EU's poorest member.

It is now pledging to fight corruption and to raise minimum wages, and supports EU sanctions on Russia over its role in the Ukraine crisis.

A populist party named Volya (Will) may end up entering Parliament. Exit polls showed it winning about 5 percent of the vote, exceeding the 4 percent minimum threshold.

The party is led by Veselin Mareshki, a wealthy businessman whose anti-establishment message combines patriotic rhetoric with promises of strict immigration controls and friendlier relations with Moscow.

The Central Election Commission said voter turnout for the election stood at nearly 43 percent at 5 p.m., a larger showing than in previous elections.

The election sparked protests at the Turkish border by Bulgarian nationalists who were determined to keep Bulgarian citizens living permanently in Turkey from coming in to vote. The protesters claimed Turkish officials were forcing expatriate voters to support DOST, a pro-Ankara party running for the first time.

Some 10 percent of Bulgarians are of Turkish origin or Muslim. More than 300,000 Bulgarians have settled permanently in Turkey, but still hold Bulgarian passports and are eligible to vote.

The border tensions prompted a spat between the two nations' leaders. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has criticized what he described as "pressure" on ethnic Turks in Bulgaria, Radev retorted that his country would not accept democracy lessons from Turkey.

"We will not allow any interference of foreign powers in Bulgaria's internal affairs," Borisov said Sunday.

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