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SOFIA â€” Television host, singer and comedian Slavi Trifonov is keeping a remarkably low profile for a man who will have a good shot at being the kingmaker in Bulgarian politics after Sundayâ€™s general election.
Standing 2 meters tall with a great dome of a shaved head and piratical earrings, 54-year-old Trifonov has long been one of the most inescapable faces in the Balkan country thanks to his folksy hits and nightly chat shows that ran for nearly 20 years until 2019.
But the success of Trifonovâ€™s reinvention of himself as an anti-establishment insurgent capable of corraling a movement to end the career of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has come as a big surprise â€” not least to Borissov himself, who is bristling at the entertainerâ€™s threat to his more-than-decade-long dominance of Bulgarian politics.
In an inconclusive election in April, Trifonovâ€™s party came second to Borissovâ€™s GERB party, winning 18 percent of the vote. After that election led to political limbo and a caretaker government, polls now suggest Trifonov could even win a rerun on Sunday, increasing the pressure on him to cobble together a coalition that would define the politics of the post-Borissov era. Â
In a 180-degree reversal from his ubiquity as a motormouth TV star over the past 30 years, Trifonovâ€™s strategy as a politician has been to shun the media limelight and rely heavily on Facebook posts to create an aura of himself as the clean broom who can sweep away the rampant corruption and cronyism that are many votersâ€™ chief concern.
Training his ire on the mainstream parties, he has described Bulgaria as a country where the â€œmafia has a state,â€ and has slammed GERBâ€™s record of â€œcorruption, mismanagement, and incompetence.â€
Even though his submarine tactics seem to be working, his non-appearances and long silences are surreal. Immediately after his big success in April, he was incommunicado for days, saying he had coronavirus-like symptoms. When it came to his partyâ€™s turn to try to form a government, he put forward chess grandmaster and political ingÃ©nue Antoaneta Stefanova as his prime ministerial candidate, only for her to immediately return the mandate.
Borissov seized on Trifonovâ€™s absenteeism and theatrics as a sign of timidity, calling his party â€œirresponsibleâ€ and â€œpolitical cowards.â€ In response, Trifonovâ€™s allies are playing down the singerâ€™s personal ambitions. Toshko Yordanov, a deputy head of Trifonovâ€™s party and one of his former scriptwriters, told the private national bTV channel last week: â€œSlavi is not someone who personally seeks power, he wants to see results.â€
The problem is that Trifonovâ€™s nuts-and-bolts agenda â€” besides a plan to overhaul the electoral system â€” is largely an enigma. For all his talk about being an anti-corruption fighter, he was conspicuously silent during major anti-corruption demonstrations last summer. In the past, he has also publicly admitted to friendships with personalities in the underworld.
It all begs the question: Who is the real Slavi Trifonov?
Hack off the duckâ€™s head
While he does not have any previous political experience, Trifonov has been a mordant critic of those in power for three decades. His love affair with television started in the early 1990s, shortly after the fall of communism. He joined the entirely student cast of â€œKu-Ku,â€ one of the first political satire programs in post-communist Bulgaria.Â
â€œKu-Kuâ€ has served as a launchpad for two other TV shows, which were one of the driving forces behind a wave of anti-government protests during the countryâ€™s turbulent and painful transition to democracy. In 2000, Trifonov landed the late-night timeslot on bTV, hosting his own program. Modeled after American late-night comedy, Slaviâ€™s show turned into one of the most watched television programs in the country.Â
For nearly two decades, he interviewed hundreds of Bulgarian and foreign celebrities, actors, singers, and politicians including Borissov. Political skits and current affair monologues became signature segments of his show. Outside the studio, he would easily trade his suit and tie for a black leather jacket and a pair of sunglasses to perform in front of concert venues packed with tens of thousands.Â
With close to 30 albums in his discography, including titles like â€œShove Them Peppers in the Beans,â€ â€œHack Off the Duckâ€™s Head,â€ â€œThe New Barbarians,â€ and â€œSongs for Bulgarians,â€ Trifonov proved to be a versatile artist. He mixes a wide range of music styles from pop and traditional folk and Balkan rhythms to rock and punk.Â
In a paper for the 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies Conference, Angela Rodel, a musicologist and translator, analyzed the use of folk music in his songs. Over the years, Rodel suggests, â€œTrifonov has realized that for the mainstream Bulgarian public, which responds enthusiastically to displays of patriotic nationalism, folk music has more political clout and affective power when performed â€˜sincerelyâ€™ rather than when distorted in obvious musical and textual parody,â€ as he used to do in the beginning of his career as a performer.Â
Those patriotic overtones were to the fore in the run-up to Aprilâ€™s vote. Because of pandemic restrictions banning big gatherings indoors, Trifonov and his band performed in an empty hall, adorned with images of iconic sites and landmarks in Bulgarian history. Dozens of flags with the message â€œLiberty or Death,â€ a revolutionary slogan of the liberation movement against Ottoman rule during the late 19th century, stood in for the missing audience.
Titled â€œWhere Art Thou, Faithful Love of Country?â€ the two-hour show featured a number of patriotic songs interspersed with inspiring messages to get out and vote. More than 20,000 Bulgarians watched the live stream on Facebook, a social media viewership that many traditional parties would envy.
Adored by many for his charisma and artistic talents and dismissed by others who see his lyrics and music as vulgar, over the years Trifonov has grown into a polarizing figure. Whichever side you take, he is a household name.Â
Pivot to politics
In recent years, Trifonovâ€™s political inclinations have grown stronger. He initiated a national referendum on voting rights and funding of political parties, which took place in 2016.Â
He also organized a reality show-style casting event to recruit the next generation of Bulgarian politicians. After floating the idea of entering politics for a while, in 2019 he finally created his own party. Inspired by one of his songs, he initially called the party Nyama Takava Darzhava (No Such State), a phrase that exemplified frustration with the nationâ€™s dysfunctional institutions. After a Bulgarian court refused to register the party for using the national flag in its logo, the television host opted for the name of one of his albums: Ima Takuv Narod (There is Such a People).
While he did not clearly identify himself with the protests of last summer, Trifonov has certainly been a beneficiary of the broad rage against the state of the nation that they represented. Vessela Tcherneva,Â deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and head of its Bulgaria branch, said:Â â€œItâ€™s a sign that the protests achieved their goal â€¦ Although they did not succeed to bring Borissov down, they made it impossible for him to maintain his grip on power.â€
Despite almost three decades in the limelight, Trifonov chose to construct a communication silo around his party, and declined to be interviewed for this article. He rarely makes any media appearances outside his own television channel, which he launched in 2019.Â
While this silence has served him well so far, Tcherneva warns that he could hardly afford to keep this up if the party needs to form a Cabinet and run the country.Â â€œHe would need to reach a broader audience, beyond his core supporters, especially at a time of crisis,â€ she said.Â
For now, however, it seems like his supporters are undeterred by his unorthodox and low-key approach.Â
Vyara Martinova, a 45-year-old office manager from Sofia, who voted for Ima Takuv Narod, has closely followed Trifonovâ€™s political aspirations.Â â€œI did not see anybody I wanted to vote for until Slaviâ€™s party came along,â€ she said, adding that he has not participated in elections for more than a decade. â€œI would like to see radical change and they are the only ones who can make it happen,â€ she added.Â
In fact, ITNâ€™s anti-establishment message has struck a chord with young Bulgarians â€” around a quarter of its votes come from people aged 18-30, a demographic that is usually considered to be largely disengaged with politics.Â
â€œYears after his popularity is well past its zenith, he still managed to find a way to reach and talk to young people,â€ said Parvan Simeonov, a Sofia-based political analyst.Â Â
From mocking politicians, to becoming one
Trying to explain his reclusiveness in April, analysts ponder whether his second place in that election might have taken Trifonov by surprise. Â
â€œItâ€™s one thing to be one of the upcoming political actors with novelty value that goes with. But itâ€™s a totally different scenario to take responsibility for the governance of the country and be the one to form a Cabinet,â€ said Tcherneva at the European Council on Foreign Relations.Â
Trifonovâ€™s limited media appearances perplex political rivals and analysts alike.
Ahead of this Sundayâ€™s vote, Trifonov announced that he would not run for parliament and hinted that he might not be the prime minister if his party has a chance to form a government.Â
â€œWe do not know what to expect,â€ said Tcherneva. â€œMost probably, he would rely on successful ministers from the caretaker government. But the underlying question remains: Will he have an appetite for reforms or be absorbed in the old networks of loyalties?â€
Simeonov is wary that ITNâ€™s election success is a testament to what he describes as immature voting habits. â€œBack in 2009, Borissov took over because people wanted to see a major overhaul. Now, it is Trifonovâ€™s turn,â€ he said. The analyst says Bulgarians tend to favor populist outsiders who promise sweeping changes and quick fixes.Â
In fact, Trifonov himself shares a similar lament. The song that inspired the original name of the party paints a grim picture of a rotten state, where corruption rules, media is for sale, MPs are fake and people are waiting for the next savior to arrive. The irony should not be lost on Trifonov who now plays the role of the newcomer, promising to dismantle the political status quo.Â
â€œItâ€™s a bit of a paradox that someone who has spent decades ridiculing politicians, now is bound to become one of them,â€ said Simeonov.
Dimiter Kenarov contributed reporting.