Karaoke politics: the Bulgarian election results in limbo

On 4 April, while some countries celebrated Easter and spring break, Bulgarians all around the world cast their votes in one of the most exciting parliamentary elections in decades. In Majorstuen, Oslo, over 500 people waited for up to 3 hours at the Bulgarian embassy to exercise their right to vote. It wasn’t only in Norway that citizens had to wait: pictures of the queues of voters from four continents flooded Bulgarian social media in a long-anticipated election.

July 2020, Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo: SevSab via Wikimedia Commons

After months of protests in 2020 demanding the resignation of the current government, an unusual excitement and political engagement has energized people. After years marked by apathy and disillusionment with the political process, recent waves of protests (in 2020, 2018 and in 2013/2014) have demonstrated a shift towards (re)emerging activism and citizen consciousness. The general ethos of the protests and the atmosphere in the country are such of exhaustion with the status quo, which is associated with corruption and lawlessness for those well-connected. Voters have demanded systemic change towards a rule of law, transparency and improved standard of life, but have they voted against their own interest?  The protests allowed for some hope, but the elections allocated power from a populist conservative to a popular populist with no clear agenda.

A new emerging political power or same tune – different name?

The results of Sunday’s election spelled a loss for the ruling party GERB (the acronym in Bulgarian for Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) after 12 years in power. Even though GERB still won the majority of votes at 26%, a coalition with GERB is out of the question – it would be political suicide for the majority of the other parties entering parliament. Among them, There is such a people (TISAP) is widely regarded as the winner of the election, with 18% it received the second highest share of the vote. The options on the table now seem to be the formation of an expert government or a minority government lead by TISAP, potentially with the other protest parties. While GERB members including Borissov made several statements on the possible scenarios, there is still no statement by TISAP on their plans.  TISAP’s success is shocking for many, the newly found party ended up the second strongest political power in the country. Reminiscent of the Ukrainian presidential election or of the rise of Trump to power from the position of respectively an actor and a TV personality, TISAP’s leader is Slavi Trifonov,an actor and entertainer.

TISAP has no political program, little is known about the vision of the party and what they intend. Their leader famously did not participate in any political debates. The party ran on a vague platform founded on populist and nationalistic societal tropes, the party’s name itself referring to a national myth of exceptionalism and mainly communicated through the cable TV channel “7/8” (owned by Slavi), while promising “imminent” change.

The lack of information on the actual strategy TISAP has for the country demonstrates the appeal of Slavi’s personality for his supporters. With no substance, or at least no explicit messaging, voters simply trust him to do what is best, whatever it may be.

Who is TISAP’s leader?

Slavi rose to prominence in the early days of the so-called transition period for Bulgaria.  This was the early 90s – a time of transition to a parliamentary democracy, a market economy, of uncertainty, hyperinflation and a series of political murders and open mafia wars. Bulgarians were watching Slavi as the co-host of Kanaleto – a sketch show on the Bulgarian national television. Later, he went on to be the host of his own late night talk show, which aired for 19 years (2000-2019) and promoted his singing career. Many know Slavi and his band’s music.

One song in particular sticks out in my mind and now from an adult perspective reads quite differently than how it was once perceived: “There is no “I don’t want to”, when I desire you I become an evil guy”. The popular tune speaks for itself in a country that saw jarring protests against the Istanbul convention, a treaty meant to strengthen efforts for combating violence against women. Eventually, the backlash tipped the scales and the convention was not adopted.

Slavi also specialised in folklore-inspired songs, which complemented his patriotic image. Throughout his 30 years in show business, he cultivated his reputation representing a particular brand of patriotism and Balkan machoism. Described as an “angry middle-aged man who gathers around himself people disillusioned with politics” by the political analyst Parvan Simeonov, after the election Slavi has only communicated publicly through his Facebook page in the typical for him court and snappish tone – a statement in itself, again reminiscent of another transatlantic populist mistrusting of the mainstream media. In one of two posts since Sunday, he announced that he is self-isolating after having COVID symptoms, which is in a way ironic after he initialy downplayed the pandemic and criticized infection contagion measures. Interestingly, nationalist parties did not manage to gather enough votes to make it to parliament this time around, perhaps as their voters found Slavi the more appealing figure.

The protest movements and the context of the election

During the pandemic it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians have returned to their home country, some temporarily, others permanently. Shifting population dynamics coincided with and perhaps strengthened a specific momentum that resulted in the development of the protest movement last year. The background of the protests is complex. Importantly, the time of multiple crisis amid the global pandemic, lockdowns, unemployment and poor living conditions provided ripe ground for the public’s outrage as a series of corruption scandals linked to the ruling conservative party GERB continuously unfolded for months in 2020.

At the same time, vocal supporters of the protests and critics of the prime minister Boyko Borissov, large business owners, and even the president’s advisors were hit with raids. Bulgarian media was flooded with newly-uncovered secret recordings of Borissov’s alleged shady dealings, screenshots of his alleged messages with exiled mafia bosses and pictures of guns and gold bars from his night stand. Reading and watching the news felt at times tacky and ridiculous, while at the same time scary and scandalous. But it also felt surreal, like a house of mirrors – with no authority probing the validity of the claims and no investigations launched amid the many allegations of misappropriation of EU funds and of oligarch groups dominating state decisions behind the curtains, there is no way of knowing the truth. Conspiracy theories of the deep state are wildly circulating in public debates, while over time the momentum of the protests weakened, in part because of the fragmentation of the political movements that supported it or perhaps also because of the firm stance of the prime minister to wait until the national elections in March instead of resigning.

The protests in the EU context

The international debate around the protests, often informed by Bulgarian journalists and professionals living abroad, posed important questions on the meaning of the protests for the EU. Entering the Eurozone has been one of the subtle catalysts for the protests – combined with the corruption perception in the country and the lack of an independent judiciary, the Eurozone membership spells out risks to damage public finances and indebt the state without any value being created for the wider society. The lack of accountability with long debated misappropriation of EU funds is seen as corrupting for the credibility of the EU as a union committed to values such as the rule of law. As Denica Yotova at the European Council on Foreign Relations puts it, the “longstanding demands for transparency and accountability on how EU funds are spent in the country [and by extension, how Eurozone membership-enabled government loans will be spent] … reveals once more the EU-level lack of an effective control mechanism on the spending of EU funds; and Brussels’s inability to protect European values ​​within the union.” With further EU enlargement in the cards with the Western Balkans, Bulgaria’s example matters. Making reforms on paper but then functioning in practice within the untransparent structures of old political elites is an overused page of the playbook of states that transitioned from socialist regimes after 1989.

Finally, the protests were addressed by the EU parliament last October. The government was criticized for the lack of reforms of the judiciary system, unwillingness to combat endemic corruption and to support media freedom. Shortly after, the opening of the EU Anti-fraud office in Luxembourg came as a celebrated announcement, it remains to be seen how this new institution will establish its position and how effective it will be in investigating cases in countries like Bulgaria.

What lays ahead

Citizens cast their votes on Sunday clearly demanding far-reaching systemic change. It remains to be seen how the results of the election will translate into a new government. Its mandate will inevitably have to respond to the issues that have dominated the protest movement and election – endemic corruption, judiciary reforms, the quality of life and poverty. Bulgaria is the poorest EU member state and scores the highest perception of corruption in the EU. While these issues are fundamental and urgent, in the hurricane of scandals many others, such as Bulgaria’s human rights record, receive less attention. It is questionable whether an unexperienced populist leader with no political majority can rise to such a profound challenge. While it remains to be seen what kind of government will result from this election’s fragmented vote, the cards are on the table now and Bulgarian voters played a weak hand in a complicated game.

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