Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's centre-right party came first in the weekend's parliamentary elections, partial results showed Monday, but with protest parties surging it has no clear partner to form a governing coalition.
Borisov's GERB party, undermined by scandals and protests after nearly a decade in power, won just 26 percent of Sunday's vote.
With the country facing an uncertain political period ahead as Borisov attempts to form a government, he pitched himself as a leader representing stability.
"You won't make it on your own... let's unite," the 61-year-old said in a live broadcast on Facebook Sunday night.
"Do you have someone more experienced than me?"
He also suggested a cabinet of "experts... to carry the responsibility and to make the maximum efforts for Bulgaria until December in order to exit the pandemic," after an election held at the peak of the country's third coronavirus wave.
Analysts predicted an uphill battle for Borisov to cobble together a new coalition after an unexpectedly strong performance by new populist and anti-government protest parties.
"The results show the profound fragmentation of society," political analyst Antony Galabov said.
"No clear majority is in view and GERB owes its win only on voters' concern for stability."
- 'Political crisis'? -
The new populist party There is Such a Nation of 54-year-old entertainer-turned-politician Slavi Trifonov came in a surprise second with 18.4 percent of the vote, according to Monday's official partial results.
The traditional main opposition Socialist party received a mere 14.9 percent, its lowest number in the Balkan country's post-communist history.
Socialist leader Kornelia Ninova said Monday the movement "will not support any government -- neither political, nor made up of experts -- put forward by GERB", predicting a "political crisis" ahead.
But political analyst Daniel Smilov said it was "too early to talk about a political crisis".
"Let's wait for the various coalition options, even if they unrealistic, to be examined," he said, while adding that "there are many unknowns".
Several other parties appear set to enter the 240-seat parliament, including two which led massive anti-government protests last summer, accusing Borisov of protecting oligarchs.
They are the right-wing Democratic Bulgaria coalition, which won around 10 percent of the vote, while new leftist coalition Stand up! Mafia out! -- which is close to President Rumen Radev, a sharp critic of Borisov -- took nearly five percent.
The kingmaker in a number of previous Bulgarian governments, the Turkish minority Movement for Rights and Freedoms party, came fifth with nine percent.
GERB's current coalition partners VMRO meanwhile failed to pass the four-percent threshold to enter parliament.
- 'Don't know what to expect' -
Borisov's poor performance came despite observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe documenting that "massive use of state resources gave the ruling party a significant advantage" in a report published Monday.
The OSCE also complained of "lack of editorial diversity" in the media, with Bulgaria standing 111th in Reporters Without Borders' global press freedom ranking.
"Politicians now have to show wisdom because in this fragmented parliament it would be difficult to form a government if they don't show political will, desire and vision," 67-year-old software engineer Lyubomir Tsekov told AFP Monday in the capital Sofia, adding he hoped to avoid new elections.
Some elderly voters were puzzled by the rise of Trifonov, who has been quite popular for many years but mostly as a singer and talk show host.
But analyst Mira Radeva said Trifonov's main appeal was among "not very political young people aged 18 to 30".
"I have no opinion of Trifonov as a politician, he is just a showman!," 64-year-old Violeta Mihaylova said.
"I don't know what to expect," she said, adding that she was disappointed with the election results.