(Bloomberg) --

Bulgaria may be headed for an extended period of political paralysis after former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov came first in a parliamentary election, though well short of a majority. 

In the fourth election in less than two years, Borissov’s conservative party won 25% of the vote, according to official returns early Monday. The party of ex-Premier Kiril Petkov, whose reformist government lasted only seven months, came second with 20%. 

“We want to respect the people’s choice,” Petkov told reporters late Sunday, conceding defeat and saying that Borissov had a free hand to form a government. 

But Borissov’s political isolation and the Balkan nation’s fragmented party landscape mean that he also has no clear path to cobble together a majority. A prolonged period of coalition building -- and even the prospect of a fifth election -- could hobble Bulgaria’s ability to address record inflation, a plan to adopt the euro and the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Bulgarian voters “expect compromises to be made -- they want a government to be formed,” Boryana Dimitrova, a managing partner for Alpha Research, told public broadcaster BNT. “It won’t be easy.” 

The European Union’s poorest member state has been propelled into its gravest crisis in decades after Russia, an erstwhile ally, cut off gas supplies in April. Almost completely reliant on the Kremlin’s energy imports before the conflict, the squeeze has left leaders in the nation of 6.5 million scrambling for new resources. 

Radev Holds the Reins

The void so far has been filled by an interim cabinet appointed by President Rumen Radev, a retired general who has fended off accusations of softening the country’s stance on Moscow. 

While Petkov sought to force a hard turn away from Russia, a caretaker government appointed by Radev has moved to revive talks with Russian state-owned Gazprom PJSC to resume supplies. 

The head of state was critical of EU sanctions imposed after the Kremlin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, which he at one point signaled belonged to Russia. 

In an address last week, he condemned President Vladimir Putin’s aggression, but also warned that the EU should mitigate the risks of its own sanctions against Kremlin. 

“It’s becoming harder and harder to form a government,” Radev told reporters in Sofia earlier on Sunday after he cast his vote. “Our country needs strong and legitimate institutions to overcome the crises, to undertake decisive reforms and to take strategic decisions with a long-term horizon.” 

Borissov Isolated, Petkov Weakened 

Borissov’s Gerb dominated the nation for more than a decade before losing power last year to Petkov’s party, known as We Continue the Change. Backed by mass anti-corruption protests targeting Borissov, Petkov defeated the conservatives on a pledge to tackle corruption. That support has waned, though Borissov’s political isolation gives him few options. 

A party traditionally representing Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, had 14%, while Revival, an ultranationalist party, won 10% -- worse than expected. The pro-Russian Socialists had the backing of 9%. 

Party leaders will have three chances to form a majority. If that fails, the president will be forced to call a new vote. 

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