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Bulgarian Showman's 'Brinkmanship' Could End Up Boosting Fortunes Of His Flagging Election Rival

With his party taking first place in Bulgaria’s July 11 parliamentary elections, showman Slavi Trifonov said he would not seek to form a coalition government. Analysts warn the gamble could backfire.

Bulgarian late-night talk-show host Slavi Trifonov has done what no other politician could do over the past 12 years: overtake former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s party in parliamentary elections.

As the results came in, Trifonov could have gotten to work seeking to cobble together a majority coalition by joining forces with two other former opposition parties and seeking support from other groups, leaving Borisov’s GERB party isolated and weakened.

But in his first announcement following the July 11 vote, Trifonov proposed a new government without the input of any other party, a highly unusual move that could lead to failure and trigger the country's third parliamentary elections this year.

The showman may be betting he could win an even greater percentage of the votes in another snap election, bolstering his power and decreasing reliance on other parties. But they warned that the move could backfire -- and open the door for Borisov's party to regain the top position.

The leader of the GERB party, Boyko Borisov, speaks to reporters on July 12.
The leader of the GERB party, Boyko Borisov, speaks to reporters on July 12.

“Trifonov is playing a brinkmanship game,” Dimitar Bechev, a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, told RFE/RL. “He is probably calculating that he has all the tailwinds.”

His anti-establishment party, There Is Such A People (ITN), certainly did in the July 11 elections.

With 99.5 percent of the ballots counted on July 13, ITN had notched over 24 percent of the vote, an insurmountable lead and an increase of more than 6 percentage points over the inconclusive April 4 elections.

With roughly 23.5 percent, a drop of more than 2 percentage points from April, GERB failed to come out on top in national parliamentary elections for the first time in its history.

GERB’s ratings have been sliding since last summer, when thousands of people took to the streets to protest against rampant corruption and call on Borisov’s government to resign.

Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest country, was ranked in Transparency International's 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index as the bloc’s most corrupt, alongside Romania and Hungary.

Critics say Borisov and his GERB-led governments are partially to blame. They accuse the longtime former leader and his party of weakening the nation’s democratic institutions and the rule of law, including politicizing the prosecutor’s office.

A voter wears a T-shirt featuring Borisov's image at a polling station in Sofia on July 11.
A voter wears a T-shirt featuring Borisov's image at a polling station in Sofia on July 11.

In the weeks prior to the election, GERB’s rating fell further as the interim government put in place following the inconclusive April elections accused it of mismanaging billions of dollars in budget revenue.

ITN’s strong showing in the April and July elections -- despite its short history, nearly nonexistent campaigning, and vague platform -- is a reflection of voter frustration with the existing political order, said William Courtney, a former U.S. State Department official and a political analyst at the Rand Corporation think tank in Washington.

I find this to be very bold, populist, and even arrogant."
-- Emilia Zankina, Temple University Rome

“It is almost an act of desperation, as it was in Ukraine,” he said, referring to Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s election in another country hobbled by entrenched corruption. A television star and political novice like Trifonov, Zelenskiy ran on an antiestablishment platform and handily defeated the incumbent in 2019.

Should Trifonov, 54, fail to win enough support, the interim government formed in April by President Rumen Radev would remain in place until another snap election in the autumn, giving it time to dig up more dirt on GERB and Borisov, analysts said.

But another failed attempt to form a government could also hand the 62-year-old Borisov an opportunity to present himself as the only statesman currently capable of running the country.

The GERB founder has hammered together three coalition governments since 2009 and headed them as prime minister.

“[Borisov] will have a good story to tell that people are incompetent, that they bungled everything, and that he is the only way to restore predictability. So that may bring some votes his way the third time around,” Bechev said.

On July 12, Trifonov proposed that the new parliament elect Nikolay Vasilev, an economist who served as deputy prime minister in the 2000s, as the country’s prime minister, refraining from nominating himself for that or any other post.

Trifonov performing during a concert in Sofia in 2016.
Trifonov performing during a concert in Sofia in 2016.

The showman picked largely young but unknown Western-educated people for other top posts, including eight women.

Trifonov rejected the idea of forming a coalition government with other parties, asserting that the process is an exercise in corruption-tainted, behind-the-scenes dealmaking.

“I find this to be very bold, populist, and even arrogant,” Emilia Zankina, the dean of Temple University Rome and an expert on Bulgarian politics, said of Trifonov’s move.

This government will not come to power. This is part of [Trifonov’s] longer-term strategy. It would be very naive of them to think that the other parties will accept such an action."
-- Genoveva Petrova, Alpha Research

He is essentially demanding that other parties “make a leap of faith” in entrusting all the positions to him, she said.

The ITN leader laid out several priorities for his proposed government, including closing the GERB-created specialized criminal court, which critics claimed was used to extort wealthy businesspeople; increasing the digitization of government services to cut back on corruption; and making government purchases more transparent.

He also called for reducing government subsidies for political parties; disbanding the Bulgarian Development Bank; building more kindergartens; and collaborating with the U.S. space agency NASA on a space program.

Zankina called it a populist platform without much coherence.

Genoveva Petrova, managing director of the Sofia-based polling agency Alpha Research, said that Trifonov’s proposed government may have just been the opening gambit in what could be a weeks-long negotiating process with other parties.

“This government will not come to power. This is part of [Trifonov’s] longer-term strategy. It would be very naive of them to think that the other parties will accept such an action,” she said.

Leaders of former opposition parties Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up! Get Out! -- which had 12.6 percent and 5 percent of the vote, respectively -- criticized Trifonov's decision, saying they expect to be part of coalition talks.

Marshall Harris, a former U.S. State Department official who served in Sofia as the communist regime collapsed in 1989, said ITN, Democratic Bulgaria, and Stand Up! Get Out! “need to act quickly” if they want to seize the opportunity to form a government without GERB.

He said the situation is reminiscent of the early 1990s, when Bulgaria’s pro-democracy parties coalesced to prevent the formation of a government led by the Socialist Party.

“Today’s opposition parties need to do their best to put the country’s interests first. That means trying to form a coalition that reflects the will of the people,” said Harris, who is now a Washington-based lobbyist representing Bulgarian businesspeople opposed to Borisov’s rule.

Trifonov “should take the lead in hammering out a fair deal for his and other parties that ran for democracy,” he said.

Petrova said the risks of not doing so go beyond the impact on any one party.

“People are expecting to have a new government. If the parties don’t manage to form one, they will lose public confidence and voters could start thinking of another system of government,” she said.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Todd Prince, with reporting by Ivan Bedrov and RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service
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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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    RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service

    RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service relaunched in 2019 after a 15-year absence, providing independent news and original analysis to help strengthen a media landscape weakened by the monopolization of ownership and corruption.