A party founded just a year ago by a popular singer and TV personality won Bulgaria’s parliamentary election. But who is Slavi Trifonov? And why is he so popular with young Bulgarians.
Final results of Bulgaria’s snap parliamentary election, held on July 11, have confirmed that There Is Such a People (ITN), a populist party formed in 2020, won with 24.8 per cent of the vote, ahead of GERB, the party of former prime minister Boyko Borissov, which received 23.5 per cent of the vote.
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Much of the support for ITN came from counties in central and northwestern Bulgaria, which have not benefited a great deal from the modest economic growth and infrastructure upgrades that took place during GERB’s many years in office.
The party also proved popular with the Bulgarian diaspora, 35.6 of whom voted for ITN. A large percentage of these people are young Bulgarians who migrated to countries like the UK and Germany for economic reasons.
Only nine per cent of Bulgarians abroad cast their vote for GERB.
In fact, amongst people aged between 18 and 30 years old, ITN received 41.5 per cent of the vote, followed by Democratic Bulgaria – an anti-corruption party – which received 17.2 per cent of the support. Overall, only 12.8 per cent of young Bulgarians voted GERB.
The race was much closer amongst the most numerous segment of the Bulgarian population, those aged between 30 and 60. GERB received 24.4 per cent of their support, ITN 22.4 per cent, and Democratic Bulgaria 16.3 per cent.
Amongst the second largest segment of the Bulgarian population, those aged 60 and over, 31.4 per cent chose the Bulgarian Socialist party (BSP), 27.2 per cent GERB, and 11.8 per cent – the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS).
Young people decisive
These statistics, revealed by Gallup International earlier this week, point to the fact that it was young people who ensured ITN’s – albeit indecisive – win.
ITN’s success amongst the younger demographic can largely be attributed to the face of the party – entertainer Slavi Trifonov.
Trifonov first became interested in politics during his time studying music at the Bulgarian Academy of Arts in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In 1992 the musician joined the student written and produced satirical TV Show Ku-Ku, which featured comedy sketches and parody songs that commented not just on Bulgaria but also the other transitional societies of the former Eastern Bloc, as well as of aspects of western and capitalist culture which were new and exciting for people at the time.
One of the most popular songs in Bulgaria during the 1990s was Shat na patkata glavata (The Duck’s Head is Coming Off) by Ku-Ku Band, the musicians who created the songs for the show, and which made light of the absurdities of the communist regime.
The video featured Trifonov and his three bandmates imitating the mannerism of a typical communist dictator alongside footage from the last large-scale communist showpiece rally held in Bulgaria in 1989, celebrating 45 years since the establishment of the regime. It was seen as ground-breaking and shocking at the time.
While many entertainers involved in the Ku-Ku show eventually became some of the most popular musicians and TV personalities in the country, Trifonov is arguably the most successful of them all.
In November 2000 he started his own show, Slavi’s Show, the first late-night programme in Bulgaria to be broadcast every day.
Part of the family
“He has been in people’s living rooms for 20 years. A whole generation grew up with him and watched him every night on TV. For many Bulgarians, he is not just popular, but a part of the family,” says Vessela Cherneva, the deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and head of its Sofia office.
This aspect of Trifonov’s position in Bulgarian society is also what makes him a problematic figure for many of his critics, who accuse him of appealing to the so-called chalga generation.
Chalga is the Bulgarian word for the popular Balkan music genre which combines elements of folk and pop music, known as manele in Romania and as turbo-folk in Serbia. The genre has been defined by its provocative and often highly sexualised lyrics and visuals that often push the norms of what is acceptable in society.
The pejorative term “chalga generation” refers to the young adults born and raised in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the time when chalga emerged as a mainstream musical genre and influenced the values and behaviour of the children who were raised listening to it.
While Trifonov’s music includes influences from an abundance of genres, including rock and jazz, many of his most popular songs clearly feature sounds typically used in chalga.
Amongst his most popular musical ventures of the 2000s and 2010s are his several collaborations with the Roma-Bulgarian chalga singer Sofi Marinova. The two even competed nationally to represent Bulgaria at the 2005 Eurovision Song Contest.
In 2018 his popularity amongst many young Bulgarians skyrocketed once again after featuring in two songs by the well-known rapper Krisko, which now have over 14 million and over 49 million views on YouTube.
In the same year, Trifonov performed at the O2 Arena in London before an audience of 20,000, many of whom were likely part of the 52 per cent of Bulgarians in the UK who voted for ITN.
While ITN has at times attached itself to the two less popular newly-established anti-corruption parties Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up! Mafia Out!, many supporters of the two parties often look down on ITN voters for the same reasons it is disliked by other sectors of society.
One popular joke amongst supporters of Democratic Bulgaria, which received the second-most votes from Bulgarians abroad – 18.6 per cent, is that ITN’s success with the diaspora is proof that Bulgaria is not experiencing a brain drain.
“The majority was not ready to support Democratic Bulgaria and Stand up! Mafia Out. They still act too much like they are from Sofia, somehow pretentious,” writes the Oxford-educated Bulgarian political commentator Evegenii Dainov.
“In the gap between the demand for complete societal change and the support for aspects of the current status quo, support for ITN emerged. Yes, there has been some change; but through voting for ‘the boy of the people’, not for the representatives of middle-class Sofia. This is the great merit of Trifonov’s party: to gather and direct those against GERB who were not ready to go to Democratic Bulgaria or Stand up! Mafia Out,” adds Dainov.
On Monday Trifonov surprised both his supporters and opponents by announcing that ITN will attempt to form a minority government alone, rather than forming a coalition alongside the two other anti-corruption parties.
ITN also announced that it will nominate Nikolai Vasilev for prime minister, a former deputy prime minister and economy minister who has also a held a number of other government posts.
Hristo Ivanov, acting chairman of Democratic Bulgaria, rejected ITN’s proposal, telling Radio Free Europe, “It is obvious that this is not what people protested nor voted for.”
On Thursday, Trifonov withdrew Vasilev’s nomination. Bulgaria is as far away as ever from a new government.
Photo: Slavi Trifonov (official Facebook page).
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