SOFIA, Bulgaria — The ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party took a strong lead in early returns after a surprisingly fair vote on Sunday, setting up communism's first victory in the new age of East European democracy.
Bulgarian television reported that with about 20% of the vote counted, the renamed Communist Party had 47%, compared to 34% for the opposition Union of Democratic Forces.
A West German polling organization that had proved highly accurate in predicting the vote in East Germany, Romania and Czechoslovakia gave the Bulgarian Socialists an even higher share, 48.5%.
"The results are pretty consistent, which gives us confidence in their accuracy," said Reinhard Schlinkert of the Bonn-based INFAS research firm.
INFAS, which was banned from conducting exit polls but set up a network for precinct reports, projected 32.3% for the Union of Democratic Forces, 8.7% for the Movement for Rights and Freedom backed by Bulgaria's 1.5-million Turkish minority, and 8.1% for the Agrarian Party.
Turnout was well over 80% nationwide, reflecting the respect East Europeans have shown for the novelty of choosing who will lead them.
Central Electoral Commission Chairman Jivko Stalev said that no serious irregularities were reported at the polling places, and U.S. and West European observers likewise said the voting had been a tribute to tolerance and fairness.
Bulgaria's election was one of the few cliffhangers in this year's succession of free votes in the region.
Reformed Communists were trounced in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and the National Salvation Front in Romania has denied any common ground with the discredited party.
The Bulgarian opposition appeared to be rising quickly in recent weeks, and it was favored among the capital's 1.2 million residents, who gave more than 50% support to the 16-party Union of Democratic Forces.
A crowd of nearly 1,000 rallied outside election headquarters well into the wee hours of today, waving blue opposition banners and chanting in support of the political underdogs, apparently unaware their favorites were running a distant second.
Vote counting progressed slowly despite the aid of computers sent by the U.S. government and other backers of democracy. Western diplomats monitoring the tabulations made little effort to hide their disappointment over the pro-Communist result.
Bulgarians, saddled with $11 billion in foreign debts and a declining economy, may have feared the opposition's call for stepped-up reforms, opting instead for the relative security of the status quo.
"We're doing quite well. No big surprises," said Kalin Mitrev, a Socialist diplomat watching the vote projections with obvious satisfaction.
Full results from the first round are expected late today, and a runoff will be held in a week to decide contests in which no candidate won at least 50%.
The balloting will seat a 400-member Grand National Assembly, with half the deputies chosen through a party popularity contest and the other half in individual constituencies. Results released late Sunday were for the party preferences.
International election observers said the vote apparently proceeded without major incidents, an element of surprise after a campaign of mudslinging and allegations of foul play by the Socialists.
"It has been very calm, fair and balanced," said Lyubomir Mitov, a nonpartisan monitor sent to the village of Jordankino from the national Committee for Fair Elections based in Sofia. "It's gone much smoother than we expected."
Union of Democratic Forces leaders had accused rural supporters of the Socialist Party of threatening punishment of opponents in backward, isolated regions of Bulgaria.
In villages like Razliv, an enclave of several hundred tucked between folds of the verdant Balkan range, Bulgarians spoke out in defense of the party that is the only power many of them have ever known.
"I've already worked hard all my life, and I want to go into retirement knowing what the circumstances will be," said 65-year-old Maria Atanassova, a toothless milkmaid chuckling with other plump matrons on a sagging bench outside Razliv's sole cafe.
"There have been some bad things done by the party over 45 years, but there have also been good things as well. People won't forget that," chimed in Penka Petkova, dressed in mourning black. "I voted for the BSP, as did my son and daughter. My husband died last year, but he would have voted for them, too."
Marin Pavlov, chairman of Razliv's Socialist Party, sat on the stoop of the nearby post office, smoking, trading gossip and tipping an imaginary hat to acquaintances trudging through oppressive heat to the polling place across the parking lot.
"I've been a member of the BSP for 35 years," said Pavlov, using the initials for the new name taken on by the Communists in April. "The party, regardless of mistakes, has done a lot for the nation, and with the restructuring that is taking place, I believe it will be the political force to lead the country out of crisis."