Bulgaria’s anti-establishment There is Such a People party (ITN) had no rallies, no posters, no canvassing, no candidates and no real programme to speak of. Now the whole country may be about to experience the same of its next leader.
The charisma of Slavi Trifonov, a bald and tough-looking pop star, was enough for ITN to win almost a quarter of the vote in last weekend’s elections, making him the likely leader of Bulgaria’s next coalition government.
Yet Trifonov, who plays a hard-charging “turbo folk” genre called chalga, seems to want to convert his anti-campaign into an anti-politics governing platform as well.
“We will take independent responsibility and form our own cabinet,” the 54-year-old said when he appeared on ITN’s small cable television channel on Monday, apparently ruling out any chance that Bulgaria would form a stable coalition government.
Trifonov, who grew up in rural Bulgaria and is the youngest of four siblings, added that he hoped that ITN would form a new government “as soon as possible” and try to go it alone. If that did not work out, analysts said that fresh elections might have to be called.
With almost all the ballots counted, the final results of the election are still too close to call. It looks as if ITN has won roughly 23.9 per cent of the vote, just ahead of the conservative Gerb party of former prime minister Boyko Borisov, with 23.7 per cent.
Borisov, 62, is so disliked after his 12-year dominance of Bulgarian politics, a time marred by corruption scandals, that he will be unable to form a coalition government.
But Trifonov, who has also fronted for the Bulgarian punk band Ku Ku, does not seem to want to do son himself.
The rationale for this, explained the host of Bulgaria’s most popular late-night television show, is that he would never ally with either of the two establishment parties — the Socialists or the Turkish ethnic group the MRF, which won 13.5 and 10.7 per cent, respectively.
Nor, Trifonov said, would he team up with other protest parties — the liberal group Democratic Bulgaria and the anti-corruption outfit Stand Up! Mafia Out! — that emerged from last year’s massive anti-Borisov rallies. Trifonov said they did not win enough votes to give ITN a clear majority.
“I think that there is no government of the minority or the majority; everyone is of the society,” Trifonov argued, adding that he was awaiting a mandate to form his government from President Rumen Radev, a staunch opponent of Borisov and Gerb.
If all this sounded unusual, it was nevertheless trademark Trifonov, said Vessela Tcherneva of the European Council of Foreign Relations in Sofia. “The fact that he has not talked to any of the other protest leaders is telling,” she said. “He wants to demonstrate that this is his call.”
Trifonov’s candidate for prime minister of the Balkan nation of 7m people is Nikolay Vasilev, a 51-year-old former economy minister and investment banker at UBS, who is now managing partner at asset manager Expat Capital.
He has also asked some prominent members of the caretaker government formed in April by President Radev after an inconclusive election to stay on. But the popular finance minister Asen Vassilev and economy minister Kiril Petkov had both declined, ITN said.
Given the apparent impasse, analysts and rival politicians said another election could not be ruled out. But that would complicate Bulgaria’s ability to use funds from the EU’s multibillion-euro coronavirus recovery package.
The alternative, however, would require Trifonov to engage in the kind of political dealmaking he has long eschewed because that would compromise his ideas of governing “for all the people”.
Hristo Ivanov, a leader of protest party Yes Bulgaria, said he did not want Bulgaria to go back to the polls and thought it better if ITN reached a political compromise and formed a government so that the country could at last move on from the Borisov era.
“Another round of elections would be suicide,” Ivanov said. “It would be wise for [ITN] to carefully reconsider,” he said. Whether Trifonov does so or not, he said, “Bulgaria is entering political instability . . . It is unavoidable.”
That instability may in turn play to the advantage of ex-premier Borisov, who has said he is happy to bide his time in opposition until the government inevitably collapses and he can return.
Borisov has long rejected charges that he oversaw rampant graft. Last month, the US imposed sanctions on two Bulgarian businessmen and a security official for being involved in corruption.
“I have been in the White House twice,” Borisov told the Financial Times last week in an interview at Gerb’s headquarters, where he showed off pictures of himself with world leaders that covered his hallway from floor to the ceiling.
“I have seen both Obama and Trump. Twice I have had the pleasure and honour of a big receiving ceremony with cannons fired in Washington,” he added. “I am convinced that I will have the pleasure again.”