By Tsvetelia Tsolova
SOFIA (Reuters) -Bulgaria's new centrist political party was seen winning parliamentary elections on Sunday, according to four exit polls, increasing chances of an end to a political deadlock in the European Union's poorest member state.
Political wrangling prevented opponents of former Premier Boyko Borissov from building a government after the previous two elections in April and July. Bulgarians have grown tired of the impasse, which was seen hampering the country's economic prospects amid a rise in COVID-19 cases overwhelming hospitals.
The new centrist anti-graft party, We Continue The Change, was seen leading with about 26% of the vote, new exit polls by Alpha Research, Gallup International, Market Links and Trend showed. The pollsters saw Borissov's centre-right GERB party in second with about 23-24%.
Market Links said the new party got 26.5% support. Gallup International also sees the new party ahead with 26.3%.
"Bulgaria is headed onto a new path," centrist party leader Kiril Petkov told reporters, saying the party understood the responsibility to forge a working government.
Analysts said the new party looked better positioned to seal a coalition with the support of two small anti-corruption groupings and the Socialists. But they said tough talks lie ahead.
Petkov promised to be open to dialogue and compromises but said his party would not step back from plans to overhaul the judiciary and clamp down on corruption. He said replacing the chief prosecutor and bolstering the anti-corruption agency would be the key issues in coalition talks.
In the presidential vote also held on Sunday, incumbent Rumen Radev, a harsh critic of Borissov, was seen winning around 50% support in the first-round vote and looked poised to win a runoff for the largely ceremonial post on Nov. 21.
The close poll results on Sunday underscore deep political divisions after a decade-long rule by Borissov, 62, a former bodyguard of late Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.
"The question remains if all GERB's opponents would stick to their pledges to avoid supporting GERB for a government. If that is the case, we will be facing a four-party coalition," political analyst Daniel Smilov said.
The election coincides with high energy costs and anger at widespread corruption in Bulgaria. While new COVID-19 cases https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/countries-and-territories/bulgaria are dropping from a record high, hospitals are still overwhelmed and the death rate remains one of the highest in the EU.
We Continue the Change was set up by Harvard-educated entrepreneurs Petkov and Assen Vassilev in September.
"We are promising zero corruption. This is what we are going after. No small tolerance, nothing, zero," Petkov told Reuters.
The exit polls also showed an ultranationalist party, Revival, which strongly opposes COVID-19 restrictions, crossing the 4% threshold for entering parliament.
Voter turnout was at a record low, about 25.5%, three hours before polls closed, data from the electoral commission showed. Partial official results are due after midnight.
(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Alex Richardson, Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney)