Bulgaria' ruling Socialists have suffered a resounding defeat in parliamentary elections, but the jubilant centre-right opposition will still need coalition partners to form a new government.
The centre-right opposition GERB party led by former bodyguard and Sofia mayor Boyko Borisov reportedly won 38.5-41.8 percent of the vote, while the Socialists of Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev came second with 17.1-18.5 percent.
Borisov described Sunday's poll as a "smashing, annihilating" defeat for the outgoing Socialists, adding that a new government had to be formed as soon as possible.
Asked whether he would become the next premier, Borisov replied "any other answer (other than 'yes') would mean I was not taking responsibility at such a difficult time for Bulgaria."
Exit polls by Sova Harris and Alpha Research suggested GERB would take between 115 and 117 seats in the 240-strong chamber, compared with 39 to 42 seats for the ruling Socialists.
If the exit polls are confirmed, there may be a hung parliament: both GERB and the Socialists will need more than one ally to form a governing coalition.
"We'll wait and see what the final results are, and the distribution of parliamentary seats. Then we'll analyse our options," Borisov said.
Although Borisov and Stanishev have been tight-lipped about potential coalition partners, both men have reportedly rejected a left-right alliance. They have also ruled out a coalition with the ultra nationalist Ataka party, which took 8.8-9.2 percent of Sunday's vote, according to the exit polls.
GERB's most likely partner, the Blue Coalition of two small UDF and DSB parties, reportedly secured 7.5-8.2 percent of votes.
The Turkish minority MRF party - the Socialists' current junior coalition partner - was credited with 11.3-13.5 percent.
Smaller parties such as the centrist NMSP of former king Simeon Saxe Coburg, the nationalist OLJ party or the business formation Lider could play a crucial role in forming the next government.
"The most important thing now is an anti-crisis programme and cracking down on political corruption," said Martin Dimitrov, the co-leader of the rightist Blue Coalition.
The current government under Sergey Stanishev, which led Bulgaria to EU membership in 2007, has come under strong pressure from Brussels to fight the country's endemic corruption and organized crime.
As a result, it did not come as a surprise that Sunday's election was marred by allegations of irregularities, particularly vote buying.
With official results expected on Monday, coalition talks could drag on for months and observers have voiced concern about a political impasse at a time when the economic crisis is expected to peak in Bulgaria.
Some analysts have warned that Bulgaria may even be forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund for help, joining several of its neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe including Hungary, Latvia, Romania and Serbia.