Inconclusive election results following a snap election; a politician at the helm who made his name on satirical TV shows; a football fanbase condemned for its racism; and a population that has a polarised attitude to the EU. Bulgaria perhaps has more in common with England than would first appear.
Dissatisfaction spilled over onto ballot papers this weekend during the country's snap general election. This has culminated in a celebrity-led, anti-elitist party winning the greatest share of the vote by a whisker: 24 per cent compared to the incumbent GERB party’s 23.5 per cent.
Slavi Trifonov, who has dabbled in folk-rock, hip-hop and punk music, and starred in his own political sketch shows, only set up his party — There is Such a People — last year. He used his TV show to grill and select future political stars, a Love Island for wannabe MPs. Some of those TV contestants are now being touted for cabinet roles, despite all being inexperienced politicians.
Trifonov, 54, has ruled out forming coalitions for now but it's difficult to see how parliament could function with a minority government that has barely a quarter of the vote. The 6ft 6in bald, earring-wearing maverick appears to have prised power away from Boyko Borisov, ending the centre-right prime minister’s near 12-year grip over Bulgaria.
The new party had a manifesto filled with centrist policies but Trifonov barely referred to it during the campaign. He had no posters or candidates and only appeared on one obscure radio interview. Instead, his declaration that he was going to run was made on Facebook and cable TV in a snub of traditional media.
One of his policies sounds more like the beginning of a joke: he has pledged to launch a man, a woman and a Macedonian into space as part of a resurrected Bulgarian space programme. As one political insider told me:
“He is a gambler and is treating this like a game of poker. The good news is that the hard-left so-called patriotic parties, which were actually a front for Russia, are out. The bad news is that there are no policies around education which Bulgaria is lagging behind in, apart from a pledge to buy one million iPads for pupils and teachers. There is nothing on health except for a promise to build a children’s hospital.
Trifonov now has two likely options: another election could be called in the next few weeks in the hope of reaching a more conclusive result or a grand coalition could be formed between his party, GERB and the Turkish party, MRF.
Brussels will be worried. Despite being plagued by corruption allegations, the defeated Borisov was the darling of the EU. His slavish devotion to the European project helped the country dodge serious action on its judiciary — seen as the most corrupt among the member states. Bulgaria has also had billions poured into it for infrastructure spending, not all of it resulting in tangible results. In exchange, Borisov has played the role of the ‘Turkey whisperer’ — capitalising on his strong relationship with Ankara to ease relations with the EU.
Presently, no minor party wants to sully its future electoral prospects by aligning with his outgoing GERB party. The only caveat is that this is Bulgaria, this is politics and everything has a price.
Trifonov is prone to spontaneity, having attempted to appoint a cabinet without actually consulting the proposed ministers. There is gossip among political commentators that he only got involved in politics as retribution over a land dispute with Borisov.
One critic said that Trifonov should not be under-estimated. He has managed to force three referendums onto the agenda including a vote on slashing state funding to political parties and an attempt to turn the voting system into a first-past-the-post race. Both of these votes were not binding thanks to low turnout, but both would have hurt the smallest parties — an odd stance for a so-called anti-establishment candidate to take.
While Trifonov refused to stand as an ordinary member of parliament, he is certain to remain the puppet master.