Bulgaria faced fresh political uncertainty Monday after tough guy ex-premier Boyko Borisov fell way short of a majority in elections held three months after mass demonstrations forced his government's resignation.
After a tense campaign marred by allegations of vote-rigging, former bodyguard Borisov's conservative GERB party came first with 30.71 percent of the vote, according to official results with 96 percent of ballots counted.
But analysts predicted that the burly 53-year-old will fail to convince any of the other three parties in a badly hung parliament to enter into a GERB-led coalition to run the EU's poorest country.
"This is goodbye for GERB. They will not govern the country," Gallup analyst Kancho Stoychev said, adding that a scandal-ridden campaign and allegations of election fraud had put GERB in "total isolation."
While GERB saw its share of the vote slide around eight percentage points from the last election in 2009, the opposition socialist BSP party received 27.02 percent, up 10 percentage points.
The only other parties to win enough votes to enter parliament are the Turkish minority MRF party with 10.59 percent and the ultra-nationalist Ataka on 7.38 percent.
Ataka, Borisov's most likely partner, has ruled out backing a GERB cabinet. If the karate champion -- who has not spoken officially since the election -- fails to form a government, the mandate will pass to the socialists.
They have already said they were ready to seek broad consensus for an anti-crisis cabinet of technocrats, possibly headed by an ex-finance minister, Plamen Oresharski, which the MRF has hinted it will back.
A preliminary estimate by the electoral commission showed GERB getting 98 seats in the 240-seat parliament, with 86 for BSP, 33 for the MRF and 23 for Ataka.
Small changes of one or two seats were still possible, commission member Krasimir Kalinov told BNR radio, hinting that BSP and MRF -- on 119 according to the preliminary estimates -- might even end up with a majority.
"Slowly and painfully Bulgaria is getting rid of GERB and this is a healing process. It is clear that GERB will not be able to form a government and this is good for Bulgaria," socialist leader Sergey Stanishev said late Sunday.
He urged "quick talks with all parties except GERB on a programme for taking the country out of the crisis... and calming social tensions."
Analysts were however sceptical that a socialist-led technocrat government would last very long, particularly if it has to rely on backing from the unpredictable and fiercely nationalistic Ataka.
"The country is very unstable," Gallup analyst Andrey Raychev said, forecasting new snap elections in a year or even less.
"The economy is in a state of free fall... Even the most rapid and suitable measures will not give immediate results. We will face a hard winter," Oresharski, the socialists' preferred premier, said Sunday.
A demonstration involving around 150 people shouting "Mafia" and throwing stones late Sunday gave a stark reminder that many Bulgarians remain deeply unhappy with the country's political class and expect urgent measures.
During January and February tens of thousands of people took to the streets around the country angry about rising poverty, corruption and falling living standards six years after EU membership, prompting Borisov to resign.
Bulgaria's winter of discontent saw seven people set themselves on fire, six of whom died.
Almost a quarter of Bulgarians live below the official poverty line. The economy grew just 0.8 percent in 2012 and foreign investment has slumped. Unemployment is almost 20 percent, according to unofficial estimates.
"These people reduced us to beggars. They ruined the country," Ivan, a taxi driver in his 50s, told AFP early Monday.
"I hope whatever government is formed will make a strong start to address what's most pressing -- poverty, low incomes and unemployment -- and win people's trust."
Five opposition parties -- excluding GERB -- have commissioned an independent vote count by Austrian agency SORA because of fears of irregularities, but its estimates, based on around half of constituencies, broadly chimed with the official results.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent its biggest monitoring mission to Bulgaria since 1990, said Monday that the vote was "held in a competitive environment" and "well managed".
It added however that the campaign "was overshadowed by a number of incidents that diminished trust in state institutions and the process was negatively affected by pervasive allegations of vote-buying."