Bulgaria is heading into an uncertain political future after Sunday’s elections which, for the second time in three months, left no party in a position to form a stable coalition. But one thing does seem clear: the conservative Boyko Borisov, who led the Balkan nation for the best part of 12 years, will not be back in power. None of the other parties say they are willing to work with his centre-right Gerb party. For that alone, Bulgarians and Europeans have reason to rejoice.

Borisov presided over a period of graft that made the country a blot on the EU’s reputation for upholding the rule of law, putting it on a par with autocratic Hungary and Poland. Rampant corruption and misuse of EU funds have held back the bloc’s poorest country. They have retarded its economic development, as the growing gap with neighbouring Romania testifies.

Corruption has also turned many Bulgarians against the democratic process. While on the surface there appeared to be an alternation of power between the mainstream parties, too often they were dividing the spoils of power between them. Frequent examples of politicians colluding with each other have, unsurprisingly, created a conspiratorial mindset in many Bulgarians which explains, partly at least, why the country has the worst coronavirus vaccination record in the EU.

It is to the EU’s shame that for much of Borisov’s period in office, Brussels turned a blind eye to the misspending of EU taxpayers’ money, to the abuse of judicial and prosecutorial authority, and to the clientelistic practices that cemented the former nightclub bouncer’s hold on power. When the administration of US president Joe Biden imposed sanctions on two Bulgarian oligarchs and a senior security official last month, it served as yet another indictment of Europe’s inaction.

Borisov was able to get away with it for so long because he avoided causing trouble for his EU partners. Unlike his Polish and Hungarian counterparts, he did not pick fights with Brussels or demonise minorities to fire up his conservative base. He maintained good relations with Russia and Turkey without serving their interests. He was scrupulously loyal to the centre-right European People’s party and its leading light, German chancellor Angela Merkel. With loyalty came political protection.

It now falls to Slavi Trifonov, a folk-rock singer and popular late-night TV host, to try to form a government. Trifonov’s anti-establishment protest party, There Is Such A People (ITN), came first with about 24 per cent of the vote. Remarkably, this unconventional party did not campaign, has no policy programme and almost no recognisable names. Trifonov, who did not stand for parliament himself, has long used his TV show to rail against a corrupt elite. Voters gave him a personal mandate but few have any idea what he will do with it. Some wonder whether the new tough guy will be very different from the old tough guy.

On Monday, without consulting the two other reformist parties, Trifonov said ITN would try to govern alone. It does not bode well for the transparency and consensus-building that Bulgaria needs, especially if it is to embark on reform of the public prosecutor and courts, which is crucial to tackling graft. The interim administration, installed after April’s inconclusive vote, has already started to lift the lid on maladministration, fire corrupt officials and put in place more transparent procurement processes.

Bulgaria’s fragmented and polarised politics means instability and probably yet more elections before long. But cleaner government is, perhaps, still possible.