Sofia (AFP) -
Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's centre-right party and a new populist party headed by singer-turned-politician Slavi Trifonov were neck-and-neck in exit polls published Sunday evening after polls closed in the country's second parliamentary election in three months.
Several exit polls projected that Trifonov's There is Such a People (ITN) party would finish within one percent of Borisov's GERB party.
Analyst Genoveva Petrova told the bTV station that the vote was heading for a 'photo finish'.
Badly damaged after massive anti-corruption protests in summer 2020, GERB was isolated in a fragmented legislature after the previous vote in April and failed to find partners to govern despite coming first.
Since then, the 62-year-old Borisov -- a former bodyguard with a black belt in karate -- has suffered a series of further blows from revelations by the interim cabinet about bad governance and allegations of corruption under his watch.
On top of that came unprecedented US sanctions against Bulgarian oligarchs who, according to Borisov's critics, were favoured during his time running the European Union's poorest and most graft-ridden member state.
Borisov has denied any wrongdoing and, while heading to cast his vote on Sunday, repeated accusations against the interim government of unfairly targeting him and said they had 'sown chaos'.
Trifonov's ITN rode public discontent to surge to a surprise second in April with 17.6 percent.
Turnout at 4 pm local time (1300 GMT) stood at just 27.4 precent, down from 40 percent at the same time in April.
Pensioner Georgi Panichev, 67, said he was unhappy with the 'excesses' of the current administration and was voting for 'stability', an allusion to the veteran Borisov, whose political longevity has marked Bulgaria's post-communist history.
Victoria Nikolova, 34, told AFP her priority was 'changes in health, education, less corruption'.
Heading to vote with her two young daughters, she said she hoped 'our children don't emigrate when they grow up'.
- 'New faces' -
Even if GERB manages to come first, 'they will not govern' as other parties now snub them, political analyst Strahil Deliyski commented.
Trifonov's ITN has already refused to work with either GERB, the opposition Socialists or the Turkish minority MRF, the traditional parties of government.
Instead, it hopes to rely on the support of the parties that emerged from last summer's protests -- the right-wing Democratic Bulgaria, polling at 12 percent, and the left-wing Stand Up! Mafia Out, with five-six percent.
Trifonov himself is not running and has indicated he will not serve as prime minister.
'It's time to finish what we started and change the model of governance entirely,' Trifonov said in a Facebook post, saying he hoped for a new administration run by 'young people, new faces'.
The founder of Democratic Bulgaria, Hristo Ivanov, echoed this with a call to voters 'turn a new page'.
- Election fraud -
If deadlock leads to yet another election, New Bulgarian University professor Antony Todorov told AFP that 'voters will tire out, their support for democracy will erode,' with extremists standing to benefit.
But Boriana Dimitrova of the Alpha Research institute told the bTV station that 'the parties realise' that voters are weary 'and they will make an effort to form a government'.
For the first time, voting is being conducted primarily by machine in a bid to limit voter fraud.
'Machine voting has dissuaded older and illiterate voters,' Julius Pavloff, director of the Center for Analysis and Marketing, told AFP.
'It's the first time we haven't been to vote -- with the machines it's too complicated,' one 90-year-old voter told the BNR radio station.
Pavloff added that 'the fine weather after long months of restrictions means many people have already gone on holiday,' further hampering turnout.
The interim cabinet has set out to try to limit widespread vote buying and voter intimidation -- long established political party practices which account for 5-19 percent of the vote, according to the Sofia-based Anti-Corruption Fund Foundation.
More than 900 people have been detained recently for allegedly trying to bribe poverty-stricken voters with 20-50 leva (10-25 euros), firewood and even basic food such as flour, bread or lentils, Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov said Friday.