Bulgaria's parliamentary elections failed to produce a clear winner on Sunday, exit polls showed, with the new anti-elite party There Is Such a People (ITN) narrowly ahead of the center-right GERB party of former premier Boyko Borissov.
Bulgaria's second election since April reflects deep divisions in the European Union's poorest member state over the legacy of Borissov's decade-long rule.
Many have turned to anti-establishment or anti-graft parties in hope of more resolute action against pervasive corruption, blaming Borissov, 62, for turning a blind eye or even supporting powerful oligarchs.
But GERB continues to benefit from public support for its efforts to modernize the crumbling infrastructure and road network and to bolster public sector pay.
A survey by Gallup International showed ITN, led by popular TV host and singer Slavi Trifonov, with 23.2%, ahead of GERB who were at 23%. Alpha Research put also ITN ahead with 24% and GERB at 23.5%.
Even if official results confirm GERB as the largest party, its chances of forging a ruling coalition are slim, political observers say. GERB came in first in an inconclusive election in April, winning 26.2%, but was shunned by other parties.
ITN may be better positioned, with the support of its likely partners, two small anti-graft groupings, Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up! Mafia Out!
But weeks of coalition talks, or even another election, are now possible, meaning Bulgaria may face difficulty tapping the European Union's multibillion euro coronavirus recovery package or approving its 2022 budget plans.
GERB was quick to concede its chances to return to government were slim.
"We will continue to work for what we believe in, no matter what role the voters have decided for us. Actually, to be an opposition is a fair and an honorable way to defend one's principles," GERB deputy leader Tomislav Donchev told reporters.
Daniel Smilov, a political analyst with Centre for Liberal Strategies, said a coalition led by ITN may be 5-10 seats short of being able to govern without the support of long-established groupings such as the Socialists or the ethnic Turkish MRF.
The protest parties, which want to foster close ties with Bulgaria's allies in NATO and the European Union, have promised to revamp the judiciary to cement rule of law and ensure proper use of funds due to pour in as part of the EU's coronavirus recovery package.
Bulgaria has had a long history of corruption, but a number of recent scandals and the imposition of U.S. sanctions last month against several Bulgarians for alleged graft have dominated the campaign.