SOFIA Bulgaria's centre-right GERB party will start talks next week on forming a coalition government, it said on Monday, after an election victory partly offset by the strong showing of pro-Russian Socialists and anti-migrant nationalists.
With 99 percent of votes counted, the strongly pro-EU GERB was seen taking 96 of parliament's 240 seats, leaving it short of a majority and certain to seek a deal with the third-placed United Patriots, an alliance of three nationalist parties expected to take 27 seats.
GERB leader Boiko Borisov, 57, whose resignation late last year triggered the snap election, chaired a meeting of his party leadership but left without addressing reporters.
The United Patriots have their own internal rifts over policy towards Russia and the European Union, complicating talks. The alliance will drive a hard bargain given GERB will struggle to secure a stable majority in parliament without them.
Any failure to agree would open the door to the second-placed Socialists, who saw their own share of seats surge to an expected 79 after their candidate won Bulgaria's largely ceremonial presidency in November.
The Socialists have vowed to improve ties with Russia even at the expense of EU unity.
"It is possible to make a government with GERB; it is possible not to," Valeri Simeonov, co-leader of the United Patriots, told Bulgarian Nova TV on Monday.
"It all depends on whether we can agree on policies. Last time around it took us about a month."
A GERB spokeswoman said Borisov, a former fireman and onetime bodyguard to Bulgaria's late communist dictator, would attend the European People's Party congress in Malta on March 29-30 and would only comment on the government on his return.
"Talks on forming a government will start next week," the spokeswoman said.
The United Patriots have capitalised on a growing mood of nationalism in Bulgaria since hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa began crossing the Balkan peninsula from Turkey en route to Western Europe two years ago.
The alliance is staunchly opposed to immigration and has called for legislation to address crimes committed by Bulgaria's Roma minority, to increase pensions and keep down electricity prices.
GERB has pledged to maintain tight fiscal policies that underpin the lev currency's peg to the euro.
A role in government for the United Patriots may also further strain Bulgaria's relations with neighbouring Turkey, and cause concern in Brussels, given the rise in right-wing populism in the bloc.
Borisov may also seek to bring the populist Will party, which is estimated to have won 12 seats, into a three-party coalition or try to lead a minority government.
Whatever the outcome, analysts were sceptical that the election would produce a stable government – the country's seventh since 2013 – capable of tackling widespread poverty and corruption as Bulgaria prepares to take on the EU's rotating six-month presidency in January 2018.
"The election did not give a clear mandate for stable, long-term governance," said Daniel Smilov, a political analyst with the Sofia-based Centre for Liberal Strategies.
"The next government will have a horizon until July next year, when the country will hand over the EU rotating presidency. In terms of reforms, we are likely to see more of the same."
(Editing by Matt Robinson and Gareth Jones)