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The right-wing party of Bulgaria's former premier, who resigned in February after mass protests, topped a new opinion poll released Friday at the official start of campaigning for May 12 elections.
The 26.4 percent of eligible voters attributed to Boyko Borisov's GERB party by the Mediana institute survey of 1,000 people would however be too small for the former bodyguard to be able to win a majority.
The main opposition Socialists were on 23.7 percent, with the rest spread among a number of smaller parties on single figures -- including the ultra-nationalist Ataka on 6.3 percent -- suggesting a highly fragmented parliament after the election.
Borisov quit as prime minister of the European Union's poorest country on February 20 after a wave of sometimes violent protests against poverty, unemployment, energy prices and corruption.
The demonstrations -- the largest spontaneous outburst of public anger in the past 16 years in the former communist country -- saw seven people set themselves on fire, five of whom died.
Since Borisov stepped down, Bulgaria has been run by an interim technocrat government led by Marin Raykov.
"It should be clear for everyone that the Bulgarian people expect change," President Rosen Plevneliev said at the start of a month of campaigning on Friday.
"Hear the people, address the problems, offer solutions and undertake clear engagements... Work to regain people's trust in the state and its institutions," he advised the parties.
There are also concerns that the election will be marred by irregularities, with state prosecutor Asia Petrova saying Friday that "the trade in votes has begun with prices up to 100 leva (50 euros, $65) per vote."
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe is sending 242 election observers, more than 10 times the number in the last presidential and municipal elections in 2011.