( AFP ) - A new right-wing party dealt a heavy blow to Bulgaria's ruling Socialist Party in local elections on Sunday, winning control of the country's two largest cities, according to exit polls.
Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), headed by conservative Sofia Mayor Boiko Borisov, surged ahead in exit polls provided by five institutes following the vote for mayors and municipal councils.
In Sofia, 48-year-old Borisov received between 50.2 percent and 53.1 percent of the votes, suggesting he could win re-election in the first round. Socialist candidate Brigo Asparuhov was running a distant third.
GERB also scored well in the second-largest city, Plovdiv, where its mayoral candidate had raced ahead with 56 percent of the vote, the exit polls showed.
But the Socialists (BSP) of Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev were still tipped to win the most municipal councillors across the country.
The vote was considered a mid-term test for Stanishev's centre-left coalition government as well as the first serious test of popularity for GERB, formed in December 2006 with an anti-corruption and anti-crime platform.
Hugely popular Borisov described the exit polls as "a slap to the governing coalition."
"GERB are clearly rivalling the traditionally strong BSP on a nationwide basis," Gallup analyst Kancho Stoichev said.
The party, which has no deputies in the national parliament, has pledged to become the principal conservative force in Bulgaria following the collapse of rightist Union of Democratic Forces after a heavy election loss in 2001.
Borisov earned plaudits among voters as a crime buster during his stint as a top interior ministry official before becoming mayor two years ago.
Meanwhile the Turkish minority Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) party, which is part of Stanishev's coalition government, kept its traditional lead in the southern region of Kardzhali.
Exit polls placed Hassan Aziz, the MRF candidate for mayor of Kardzhali, in the lead with 56.3 percent of the vote.
Border police reports showed that Aziz had also garnered support from several thousands voters with dual Bulgarian and Turkish citizenship, who crossed the border from Turkey on Sunday.
But turnout was a disappointing 30 percent of the 6.9 million eligible voters by 6:00 pm (1600 GMT), just an hour before polls closed, Bulgaria's electoral commission reported.
The first partial, official results will be released late Sunday for elections in which no less than 60,000 candidates ran for 5,232 municipal council seats and 3,223 mayoral posts.
Commentators said the large number of candidates was likely due to the prospect of 1.36 billion euros (two billion dollars) in EU regional development funding which Brussels plans to make available to Bulgaria later this year.
The large number of candidates also presented voters with the challenge of finding their preferred choice on a ballot paper that in one municipality ran to over 1.2 meters (four feet) in length.
At least three people were arrested for allegedly trying to bribe voters, reports said.
Vote-buying allegations recently prompted parliament to amend the penal code to toughen the penalties for giving and receiving a bribe for voting, with a maximum sentence of three years in jail.