Boyko Borisov, the conservative leader who has run Bulgaria for much of the past 12 years, appeared to have been consigned to opposition on Sunday after a closely fought parliamentary election left him with no allies to form a government.

Borisov’s Gerb party came top in the ballot with 23.5 per cent, according to exit polls by Alpha Research. Gallup also put the centre-right party in first place with 22.1 per cent.

The anti-establishment party There is Such a People (ITN), led by singer and TV host Slavi Trifonov, came in a close second with around 22 per cent of the vote, according to the estimates.

Democratic Bulgaria, another so-called protest party, was predicted to win 14.1 per cent, level with the Socialists at 14.1 per cent. The anti-graft ‘Stand up! Mafia Out!’ party, the protest trio’s smallest member, was on course to win 4 per cent, the threshold to enter parliament.

Analysts said that, once votes cast abroad are counted, ITN could emerge as the biggest party. Still, Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest member state, is probably heading towards an unstable government, if not political paralysis. The parliament will be divided between established parties, including Borisov’s Gerb and their Socialist opponents, and three anti-establishment protest parties, including ITN.

Borisov is highly unlikely to be able to form a government because the other parties have vowed not to work Gerb. But the protest parties lack the votes to govern on their own and are reluctant to team up with either the Socialists or Turkish minority MRP, which they believe have perpetuated a corrupt political system.

“We are nowhere, politically, because the so-called protest parties did not have enough votes to form a self-standing government even together,” Hristo Ivanov, a leader of the liberal Yes Bulgaria, part of the Democratic Bulgaria alliance, told the FT after the exit polls were published.

“The outcome translates into 110-115 MPs but I do not expect anything beyond that,” Ivanov said. “And, for a majority, you need 122 as a minimum. It is a very difficult situation in which you cannot just call a new election again.”

Trifonov, a popular folk-rock singer, stayed silent during the campaign about his plans, confounding his potential coalition partners. Bulgarians know little about what his ITN party stands for or about its new representatives in parliament. Ivanov has described his potential coalition partner as a “black box”.

Borisov oversaw some economic development, including infrastructure upgrades, but he has been unable to shake persistent accusations of graft, which boiled over last year in protests lasting several months.

The protests eroded backing for Gerb and made it “untouchable” for political partners, according to several analysts and opposition politicians.

“Young people continue to leave for abroad. Corruption is suffocating any business initiative. Something has to change,” 38-year-old engineer Nikolay Galabov told Reuters after casting his vote in Sofia.

In an interview last week, the former premier dismissed the graft claims as baseless and said the opposition was pushing the agenda of a leftist “mafia”.

The vote on Sunday was a repeat of early April’s inconclusive elections, which failed to produce a government. Bulgaria’s president Rumen Radev, a staunch opponent of Borisov, appointed a caretaker administration. Despite lacking a democratic mandate, it set about cleaning up the public administration, overhauling procurement procedures and firing officials deemed corrupt.

“Once people saw Borisov out of power, they did not see an adequate proposal for a new government on the political market,” said Ivanov, pointing to low turnout.