The big surprise of the pivotal Bulgarian elections held on 4 April was the performance of showman Slavi Trifonov’s party, “There is such a people”, which captured 17.66% of the vote and is likely to go on to form a government. But who is Stanislav ‘Slavi’ Trifonov?
Bulgarians voted for change on 4 April, sending three new political parties to the 240-member parliament and signalling the likely ousting of Boyko Borissov’s conservative GERB, affiliated to the European People’s Party (EPP) at EU level.
Even though GERB is still be the biggest party in parliament, having won 26.18% of the votes and 75 seats, all six political forces in the new parliament are expected to vote unanimously against another GERB government, likely to be proposed in the week starting on Monday (19 April).
According to the Constitution, the second political force, that of Trifonov, will make the next attempt, and he is expected to be successful.
Slavi the showman
Trifonov rose to stardom at the beginning of the 1990s as a producer, singer, and actor in a popular satirical show that ran on Bulgarian National Television (BNT) called “Ku-Ku”. Long-haired in these times, the now-bald 198-cm tall showman seemed to enjoy life and had no political appetites back then.
Slavi became one of the biggest Bulgarian TV stars. Since 2000, for 19 consecutive years, he hosted more than 4,100 episodes of his highly popular late-night “Slavi’s Show”, becoming the Bulgarian David Letterman. Mikhail Gorbachev, Shimon Peres, Luc Besson, and Charlie Sheen were among his high-profile guests.
Back in those days, the most iconic political candidates had the honour to appear in Slavi’s show ahead of elections, including a younger Boyko Borissov, Rumen Radev, the fighter pilot who is now president, and others.
Those in power were criticised by default in the show. The TV host has always been a rebel and an irritant to the political status quo. Every Monday, through political satire, prominent Bulgarian politicians were mimicked and mocked by his show’s actors.
Slavi the musician
Trifonov’s career as a musician is equally impressive. With his “Ku-Ku Band”, he has released 22 albums and has organised 13 tours, including one in the US and Canada (American Tour 2010).
In 2016, Trifonov played in the largest European hall, the O2 Arena in London, where 20,000 Bulgarians were singing along to his patriotic songs. His music channel on YouTube has almost 500,000,000 views.
But the political elite pretended not to notice him and, despite his huge popularity, many Bulgarians did not take him seriously, considering him as a populist and blaming him for promoting and “legalising” the “Chalga” culture in the country.
“Chalga” or Pop Folk is not only a musical genre that combines traditional Bulgarian folklore and modern dance elements, inspired by Serbian ‘Turbo folk’. It is also a cultural phenomenon that often divides the country.
“Chalga” is often a synonym of profanity and is used to describe negative aspects and traits of Bulgarian society such as the triumph of mercantilism and cultural degradation over hard work to get an education.
Bulgarian nurses in Libya
As a TV host, Trifonov has always referred to the people as “the sovereign”. And he has missed no opportunity to voice his views on socially important topics concerning Bulgaria, sometimes with a real impact.
One example is the trial of six Bulgarian nurses accused of having spread the HIV virus in Gaddafi’s Libya, when he launched a high-profile campaign in support of his female compatriots who had been tortured and risked death sentences.
The 2016 referendum
But Trifonov’s most important political manoeuvre was the 2016 referendum he initiated together with his script-writers, who represent his team, some of whom he now made MPs.
The three-questions referendum concerned changing the current proportional system to majoritarian, introducing compulsory voting, and reducing public funding of political parties to one lev (around €0,50) per valid vote, down from 11 leva at that time.
Some 2.5 million people voted in favour and only 12,000 votes more were needed for the referendum to have a mandatory effect. Trifonov denounced the result as a “monstrous fraud”, alleging votes had been miscounted and sacks of ballots were “forgotten” in voting sections.
Since then, Trifonov has consistently blamed the political status quo for getting organised against him. This is how he created his political party “There Is Such a People”.
Slavi, the politician
During the election campaign, Trifonov’s did not play the classical political game and did not participate in a single political debate.
His main communication strategy was to air party messages on Trifonov’s own private TV channel “Seven-Eights”. (7/8 is the typical rhythm of Bulgarian folk dances.) He was the first and only among TV channel owners to require a fee, albeit symbolic 78 stotinki, for the channel to be received on cable TV.
Trifonov’s party did not take part in anti-Borissov protests last summer, unlike the other two “protest parties” that entered the new parliament.
Currently in quarantine, after testing positive for COVID-19, Trifonov has kept his cards close to his chest.
He has only posted a few messages on Facebook, making clear that he will not enter a coalition with GERB, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the mostly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS). This, however, does not necessarily mean that he would not accept their support.
Slavi, the miracle maker
Bulgaria has a long tradition of miracle-makers and Trifonov looks to be the next in a line of unusual leaders such as Simeon von Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the exiled child-king for whom Bulgarians voted massively after his return in 2001, but who did not last long on the political scene.
This time, however, it appears that Trifonov has thrown his hat in the ring not to become the prime minister, but to make sure the electoral system is changed, that Bulgarians abroad get easy access to vote, that democracy becomes fairer and that Borissov’s GERB party suffers the consequences.
“GERB is a toxic party that should disappear from the political landscape,” Trifonov wrote on Facebook after the elections.
Even a short-lived government could achieve changes to the voting system. Analysts generally agree that another early election could be on the way.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Frédéric Simon]