Bulgaria faced prolonged political instability on Monday after a national election appeared to result in a razor-thin victory for the anti-establishment There Is Such a People (ITN) and no clear prospect of forming a government emerged.
The ITN, headed by popular TV talk show host and singer Slavi Trifonov, edged ahead of the center-right GERB of former prime minister Boyko Borissov.
With 98.9% of ballots counted, ITN had won 23.9%, only just ahead of Borissov's GERB, with 23.7%.
On Monday, sharp-tongued but debate-shy Trifonov, 54, announced plans to try to form a minority cabinet, which most observers said was a risky move putting pressure on his likely partners.
Arguing a coalition government could foster backroom deal-making, he laid out his list of priorities and ministers, appealing to small anti-graft Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up! Mafia Out!, which have benefited from mounting anger over corruption, to lend him support.
Trifonov said he was not interested in being the next prime minister and would nominate Nikolay Vassilev, 51, a former economy and state administration minister and former executive at Lazard Capital Markets, for the post.
"It is time that everything happens right in front of your eyes in parliament. Because this is the moral thing to do," he said in a live-streamed speech from his small TV channel.
The three protest parties are not expected to secure a parliamentary majority, meaning ITN would need the backing of traditional parties such as the Socialists or the ethnic Turkish MRF party to replace the current interim cabinet.
Ex-premier Borissov, 62, who had been in office for most in the past decade, slammed his rival's proposal as "dust in the eyes of the people" and told reporters Trifonov did not really want to form a government.
"In only a month, the debates for next year budget will start. How will he please each party?" Borissov said.
Borissov said he was ready to stay in opposition and did not expect to forge a functioning coalition even if the mandate came to him after he failed to do so following inconclusive parliamentary elections in April.
Most political parties refuse to work with the former bodyguard, with many Bulgarians blaming him for allowing pervasive corruption to fester and accusing him of giving tacit support to powerful oligarchs.
A third election cannot be ruled out, meaning Bulgaria may face difficulty tapping the European Union's multi-billion euro coronavirus recovery package or approving its 2022 budget plans.