Pop Star Vies to Upend Bulgarian Politics in Do-Over Election
(Bloomberg) -- A late-night talk-show host and performer of the Balkan analog of gangster rap is itching to end the run of one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders in a Bulgarian election do-over.
Stanislav Trifonov, a pop-folk singer known as “Slavi,” has been railing against inequality and corruption even before Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007. He’s tapping into discontent among voters fed up with the bloc’s lowest living standards and endless scandals among the elite.
Pledging to wipe out a “mafia model” he says gives oligarchs with ties to organized crime sway over politics, his anti-establishment There Is Such a People party won more support than expected in an initial ballot in April.
That blocked the Gerb party of then-Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who first took power in 2009, from a fourth term. But it resulted in a hung parliament, triggering a re-run that takes place Sunday with the two front-runners neck and neck.
“What Gerb has done is unimaginable, unacceptable,” Trifonov, who’s been compared to other entertainers-turned-politicians, such as former comedians Beppe Grillo, the leader of Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said in May. “It should be scratched out.”
Transparency International has ranked the country last in the EU for most of the past decade in its Corruption Perception Index. Bulgaria, the bloc’s poorest member with living standards of about half of the EU average, has also drawn criticism for failing to uphold the rule of law and has been kept out of the passport-free travel Schengen zone.
Trifonov, 54, and Borissov, 62, both grew up poor, rising to prominence during a transition from communism that brought hyperinflation, bank runs, poverty, bloody gang wars and nationwide protests.
They both started outside politics: Borissov as a bodyguard for Bulgaria’s last communist dictator and Trifonov as a crooner who filled stadiums from London to Los Angeles. With shaved heads and black leather jackets, both embraced the tough-guy image.
Borissov bolstered that perception as a hard-talking policeman and mayor of the capital, Sofia. Trifonov, meanwhile, helped popularize the “chalga” music style that melds Balkan folk with pop, It became popular in the 1990s for lyrics depicting life on the streets but was also derided for glorifying crime, chauvinism and flashy wealth.
As Borissov’s political rise continued, Trifonov went on to host Bulgaria’s most-popular late-night talk show, where guests included Mikhail Gorbachev. He now runs his own channel, whose programs have flirted with anti-immigrant positions, anti-vaccination theories and conspiracies.
In his hit “There Is No Such State,” whose title inspired his party’s name, Trifonov sings: “Aren’t you tired of living so poorly? How long will we stay quiet?”
Borissov, dogged by scandals and criticized for failing to improve Bulgaria’s record on corruption, was replaced in April after other parties refused to join a new coalition government. The interim administration that took charge has struggled to roll out immunizations — just 12% of the population is fully vaccinated, the least in the EU — and demand for shots has evaporated. Gerb has since lost support.
Both Borissov and Trifonov say they favor deepening ties with the EU, though each has signaled resistance to the bloc’s efforts to open membership talks with neighboring North Macedonia, citing long-standing historical disputes.
Borissov wants Bulgaria to adopt the euro by 2024. Trifonov wants the currency too, but his adviser Toshko Yordanov, deputy chairman of There Is Such a People, warns against any “premature” move. “The euro zone is great for rich countries,” he said. “Bulgaria isn’t a rich country.”
Borissov hasn’t specified whether he’ll demand the prime minister’s job if his party triumphs or who he’d favor as coalition partners. Trifonov, who isn’t running for parliament himself, has said it’s not his goal to become premier. He’s potentially better placed to form a ruling coalition. His most-likely allies include two anti-corruption parties, though the three together may struggle to clinch a majority in parliament.
All mainstream parties refuse to work with Gerb, creating an enormous hurdle for Borissov to clinch a new term. But Gerb Deputy Chairman Tomislav Donchev isn’t ruling anything out.
“That’s the natural political model -- the leader of the political party that won the election is nominated for prime minister,” Donchev said in June. But “it all depends on a number of factors.”
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