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A Bulgarian Showman Could Be The Country's Election Kingmaker

Popular Bulgarian TV host Stanislav "Slavi" Trifonov
Popular Bulgarian TV host Stanislav "Slavi" Trifonov

A popular late-night talk show host and folk-pop singer could be a spoiler for Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s hopes to form the next government after parliamentary elections on April 4.

Stanislav Trifonov, who is known to millions of Bulgarians simply as "Slavi," is winning over disenchanted voters to his newly formed party with an antiestablishment platform amid frustration over endemic corruption and poverty.

Trifonov set up his party -- There Is Such A People -- shortly before a corruption scandal in 2020 sparked weeks-long mass protests against Borisov’s government.

It is forecast to come in third in the parliamentary elections with nearly 13 percent of the vote.

That could make it difficult for Borisov’s ruling GERB party, which is expected to come in first with slightly less than one-quarter of the vote, to form a coalition government.

Analysts say that could transform the 55-year-old Trifonov from being a political novice to a kingmaker -- a role played for decades in Bulgaria by a mostly ethnic Turkish party called Movement For Rights And Freedoms (DPS).

Such an outcome would be a blow for Borisov, who has dominated Bulgarian politics for more than a decade but whose support has weakened in recent years amid scandals and voter fatigue.

Trifonov has played a role in chipping away at Borisov’s popularity over the years, lambasting the prime minister and his government on his highly rated TV show.

Antiestablishment Party

Trifonov is set to become the latest television star to parlay national fame into political power amid wavering faith in democratic governance, following in the footsteps of former U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Analysts say Trifonov’s entrance onto Bulgaria’s national stage represents the continuation of a decades-old effort to create a viable antiestablishment party in Bulgaria as much as it does the spread of populism.

Dimitar Ganev, a political scientist at the Trend Research Center in Sofia, told RFE/RL that Trifonov’s party is a “typical new player” in Bulgaria that seeks to challenge the status quo.

Trifonov's show highlights domestic political issues in Bulgaria like widespread corruption.
Trifonov's show highlights domestic political issues in Bulgaria like widespread corruption.

“In every parliamentary election in Bulgaria there is a party that comes out with this [antiestablishment] message, because in Bulgaria there is a chronic distrust of the entire political elite,” Ganev said.

There is fertile ground for that lack of trust.

Bulgaria, which joined the European Union in 2007, remains the bloc’s poorest nation. Hundreds of thousands of citizens in the nation of nearly 7 million work in the United States, Turkey, and other EU nations because they cannot make a decent living at home.

Bulgaria also ranks at the bottom of the EU on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, as well as media freedom.

Comparison With Zelenskiy

Trifonov’s political rise shares some semblances with Zelenskiy, a former comic who played an accidental president in a popular Ukrainian television series before he won the country’s highest office in April 2019.

Like Zelenskiy, Trifonov is a political novice who has used his television show to lampoon dysfunctional government.

And like the Ukrainian candidate at the time, Trifonov has avoided clear stances on many important domestic and foreign policy issues -- focusing instead on his status as an outsider.

However, one major difference between the two is that Zelenskiy’s presidential bid came as a surprise to the nation since he had not been politically vocal.

Trifonov, on the other hand, has been outspoken for years about political and social issues, drawing attention to the plight of average citizens.

He had hinted at times that he would run for office and even organized a referendum on constitutional change in 2016.

Rise To Fame

Trifonov was born in the northern Bulgarian town of Pleven near the border with Romania in 1966. The youngest of four children, he attended a specialized music school in his youth.

He moved to the capital, Sofia, in the mid-1980s to attend the Bulgarian State Conservatory just as revolutionary political change was about to sweep through Eastern Europe.

Trifonov got his start in television in 1990, shortly after the collapse of communism, on a satirical program called Ku-Ku, which would set him on a path toward national fame.

While working on the show, Trifonov formed the Ku-Ku Band with other cast members. The band produced dozens of albums over the years, becoming one of Bulgaria’s most popular groups with millions of views of its YouTube videos.

In 2000, after years of work on a TV program known for political satire, Trifonov launched Slavi’s Show.

The late-night talk show ran on national television under that name for nearly two decades until Trifonov canceled the program in 2019.

It was arguably Bulgaria’s most popular entertainment program, making "Slavi" a household name -- and giving Trifonov a platform along with his music to express his political views.

Trifonov has since launched his own cable channel called 7/8 with a program lineup that features music and political analysis in addition to his revamped talk show.

With his own cable channel, he has become more vocal in his criticism of Bulgaria’s leaders.

In one of his more popular songs, the 2013 hit There Is No Such Nation, Trifonov portrayed Bulgarian politicians as people interested in little more than money and sex. The song questions why Bulgarian citizens continue to elect such people.

“Don’t talk to me about law and constitution. In this country, it’s all prostitution,” is one line from the song.

“Are you sleeping or are you waiting for yet another savior? How many times are you going to relive the same old story? We throw out one, and then hug the next. Does anyone know how a police officer becomes a millionaire?” continues another part of the song.

While Trifonov has experimented with various music styles over the years, he is most associated with Chalga -- a Balkan folk-pop style that some consider low-brow and vulgar.

Young Political Base

Analysts say Trifonov’s brash style appeals more to a younger audience that forms the core of his base. He also appears to poll stronger in smaller cities and towns, where youth may be more disillusioned.

Parvan Simeonov, a Sofia-based political analyst for Gallup International, describes Trifonov as “a very angry middle-aged man gathering the politically disappointed.”

Trifonov's Ku-Ku Band has had hit "Chalga" songs in Bulgaria.
Trifonov's Ku-Ku Band has had hit "Chalga" songs in Bulgaria.

But Genoveva Petrova, managing director of Alpha Research in Sofia, says Trifonov could undershoot the opinion polls on election day because young voters have a greater tendency not to vote.

There Is Such A People also lacks the party infrastructure used by other political forces to rally supporters on election day, analysts said.

Instead, Trifonov scheduled a large concert for April 2 to encourage voter turnout among his supporters.

Simeonov says the 2021 election results also could differ sharply from public opinion polls because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Older citizens, which form the base of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), might skip the vote over health concerns. Bulgaria does not allow postal voting.

Platform Of Technical Reforms

Trifonov’s political platform calls for allowing remote electronic voting as part of a plan to make casting a ballot mandatory. Bulgarians living abroad can only vote at embassies or consulates, an impossibility for many.

The talk show host’s platform also calls for a switch from a proportional political system based on party lists to a majority system; a cut in state funding for parties; a reduction in the size of parliament by half to 120; and introducing direct voting for key positions like the prosecutor-general.

Petrova argues that Trifonov’s focus on such technical issues does not address Bulgaria’s core problems.

Meanwhile, Trifonov’s views on other domestic and foreign policy issues have not been clearly articulated -- raising uncertainty about how he would vote in parliament.

He has not given any media interviews during his monthlong election campaign nor has he debated any competitors. Simeonov says his fellow party members on the ticket are barely known.

Instead, Trifonov has used social media to communicate directly with voters. Petrova says that tactic limits Trifonov’s appeal with a wider audience. But it also safeguards him and his team from critical mistakes that could cost them votes.

Simeonov describes Trifonov as a “typical '90s guy” who shares European values.

He said that although Trifonov is strongly patriotic, he has not played the “ethnic card” and enjoys support from Bulgaria’s Roma community.

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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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