A right-wing opposition party appeared to win Bulgaria's parliamentary election by a wide margin on Sunday, and Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev conceded defeat.
Official election results are not expected until Monday, but Sofia Mayor Boiko Borisov, the leader of the right-wing Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, said he expected to form the country's next government and serve as its prime minister.
"I will take the responsibility to lead the next government," Borisov said at a news conference.
Stanishev, whose socialist coalition was hurt by corruption, congratulated the opposition for its victory. "The results show that the Socialist Party has suffered a serious loss," he told reporters.
Borisov's party did not appear to win an outright majority, but it may be able to get the support it needs to form a coalition government.
The Alpha Research exit poll indicated the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria won 38.5 percent of the vote. The survey placed the governing Socialists second with 18.4 percent, while their junior coalition partner, the mainly Turkish MRF, won 13.5 percent. Alpha Research said the ultra-nationalist Attack Party would finish fourth with 9.2 percent, followed by the right-wing Blue Coalition with 7.5 percent.
A separate exit poll by Sova Harris said Borisov's party won 40.8 percent of the vote, with the Socialists at 17.1 percent and Turkish MRF with 15.2 percent. It said the Attack Party would finish fourth with 8.9 percent, followed by the Blue Coalition with 6.4 percent.
Some 53 percent of Bulgaria's 6.8 million eligible voters cast ballots, according to the exit polls.
Stanishev's Socialist government has been credited with securing EU membership for Bulgaria in 2007, but it has widely been blamed for failing to crack down on corruption and improve the quality of life for Bulgaria's 7.6 million people.
‘Serious victory’ for right wing
Bulgaria is the poorest member of the 27-nation European Union, with an average salary of euro300 ($420) a month. At least 700,000 mostly young and well-educated Bulgarians have left the country over the last two decades for better job opportunities and living standards.
The EU froze millions in aid to Bulgaria last year amid allegations of fraud tolerated by the Socialist-led coalition, which has itself been plagued by scandals.
The ministries for construction, agriculture and the environment also have been accused in corruption schemes, but only a few low-profile cases have been taken to court.
In contrast, Borisov's party has pledged to jail corrupt officials and crime bosses.
The Blue Coalition said Sunday that it would be open to joining a coalition led by Borisov's party.
"This is a serious victory for the right-wing parties," said Petar Moskov, spokesman for the Blue Coalition. "It is the big comeback of the rightist parties and a considerable punishing vote for the incumbent coalition."
After casting his ballot Sunday, Borisov said: "I vote for a European Bulgaria, which has to prove that it is not the poorest and most corrupt country in Europe."
Some voters said a new government is needed in their hard-pressed country.
"I cast a vote aimed at a change in this country, because I want to stay here and work here, and not abroad," said Petar Antonov, a 22-year-old economics student.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were monitoring Sunday's vote and will release a report on Monday.
Allegations of vote-buying by the two main parties during last month's European Parliament election prompted several investigations and 15 court cases, police said. Transparency International said 16.4 percent of Bulgaria's votes for the EU assembly were suspect.
On Saturday, 50 reports of vote-buying ahead of Sunday's vote were investigated with two leading to criminal prosecutions, police said.