Showman Slavi Trifonov is perceived as the next miracle maker about to enter Bulgarian politics. The novelty is that he is trying to use the Bulgarian diaspora as a legitimising instrument and façade for his own political illiteracy, writes Kaloyan Georgiev.
Kaloyan Georgiev co-founded “Mentors BG” – an innovative mentorship program in Bulgaria, supported by individuals in politics, finance and business, which aims to find the new leaders of the country. He is also the first Bulgarian to be named Yenching Scholar with a full scholarship for a two-year master’s degree in China Studies at Yenching Academy of Peking University.
There is a widely held perception that over the years, Bulgarian democracy has suffered from certain political and functional disorders that have undermined its ability to create solutions to the pressing problems of the country. Characterized by a constant public unrest, the period since the accession of Bulgaria to the EU brought several impulses for far-reaching reforms, which were not fulfilled. Series of political coalitions around GERB and the personality of Boyko Borissov elected governments that failed to define the country’s strategic goals and the means for their implementation. These dynamics inspired the rise of populistic forces, which passed the threshold and entered the National Assembly. Some of them relied on the charisma of their leaders, while others used nationalism to build-up their rhetoric. However, all of them had one goal – to offer an alternative and change the political status quo of Bulgaria.
Populism – a few remarks
As an eclectic, incoherent style of political rhetoric, populism emerges from a kind of frustration with traditional elites and democratic institutions, seen as unable to govern effectively. The combination of weak institutions, corruption and poverty inspires social unrest, which gives rise to anti-establishment forces. Populists draw lines between the elite and the people, painting the former as distant and corrupt, isolated from the social reality. Yet, how dangerous is populism? Soft and hard types of populism damage the democratic order differently. While both are stimulated by a crisis of the establishment, soft populists challenge the status quo by forming parties around their personalities, which ultimately damages the ideological spirit of politics per se. However, a much more real danger comes from “hard” or “turbo” populists, who claim to be universal representatives of the people and attempt to change the constitutional system according to their view.
Is populism in Bulgaria a new phenomenon?
Since June 2001, when NDSV captured 120 of the 240 seats in Parliament as a “catch-all” party, populism has been present in the country, leading to the emergence and demise of numerous political forces. The ideologically polyvalent Simeon II used charisma and a popular appeal to catch the vote of all electoral groups. By relying on technocratic expertise, NDSV was the first political actor to use the myth of the successful Bulgarian individuals abroad in order to add legitimacy to its power. Although during this time Bulgaria achieved certain foreign policy objectives, huge promises and lack of reforms led to a 3.1 % support for the party just 8 years later, in the elections of 2009.
Clearly, the huge political triumph of Simeon II as a moderate populist set the scene for other forces to claim a proportion of the public vote. Populistic nationalists appealed to the public by drawing portraits of the common enemies, responsible for the social stagnation inter alia the domestic elites, the Roma people, the international institutions. A paradox emerged – the populist rhetoric did not differentiate between elites and ethnic minorities: ‘Both are unlike us; both contribute to our poverty, both do not pay taxes and need Brussels’ support.’
Populism and technocracy – two sides of the same coin
At first glance, there seems to be an incongruity between populists and technocrats. Yet, paradoxically, they operate on the same fundament arguing for a universal solution to every social problem. In the first scenario, the solution is derived from the people, while in the second it stems from experts with a sophisticated understanding of the processes at hand. Both phenomena challenge the idea of liberal democracy as a realm of debate, political alternatives and different points of view. However, when combined, they are nothing but an explosive mixture, which threatens the well-functioning of the constitutional order.
Eyes on the future – can the political ambitions of Slavi Trifonov create a viable alternative for Bulgaria?
Slavi Trifonov is a widely known showman in Bulgaria, who initiated the 2016 referendum with the purpose of changing the political system. Questions in the referendum were related to the form of the electoral system, the number of MPs and the parties’ financing from the state budget. No matter the results, a defining feature of all the questions was the fact that they did not deal with the basic source of power in the country, particularly the economic one. As long as no fundamental shift in economic power is initiated, political decisions will be taken by the same circles who dominate the economic realm. Therefore, in its essence, the anti-status quo initiative created a civil impulse leading nowhere.
Despite that fact, the referendum characterized its initiator as a populist, trying to unite the protest vote, draw a line against elites and change the system according to his preferences. The similarity between past populists and Slavi Trifonov is further seen in the approach he takes towards cadre recruitment, using the Bulgarian diaspora abroad as a legitimizing instrument and façade for his own political illiteracy. Hence, the same old model is employed again. The outcome will not be different.
It is clear that political dynamics in Bulgaria will intensify following the end of the Presidency of the Council of the EU. In spite of the commendable effort of Borissov’s government in pushing forward the agenda for the Western Balkans, its domestic policies followed the events, rather than initiating them. The failure of the government to guarantee minimum levels of security for the citizens was elucidated by a cascade of criminal incidents in the last few months, the lack of any concrete measures to tackle rising crime and the missing expertise in the work of the Interior Ministry when it comes to policy design and implementation.
The motion of non-confidence initiated by the BSP, the main opposition party in the country, indicates a will to point out the mistakes and hold the government accountable. It is difficult to imagine how Bulgaria will enter Schengen or be responsible for the security of others in the Balkans when corruption and mismanagement hinder institutions in their efforts to guarantee security domestically.
With all that said, Bulgaria must look for an alternative – for individuals that could redefine the notion of political leadership, based on principles, ideology and a sense of shared responsibility. Populism is not a solution – over the years, it led to a gradual destruction of all components of the political system. When in power, populists became institutionalized, which lowered the levels of trust in institutions and representative democracy and furthermore increased the gap between “elites” and “people”. Paradoxically, this created an even more fruitful environment for populism in Bulgaria.
The country’s leadership is not destined to be populist. Major role in the definition of new leadership can be played by the Bulgarians abroad. Their education and skills can help to realize a new vision for Bulgaria, distant to the ones in the past. It remains to be seen whether the Bulgarian community abroad can be an actor of its own or will it continue to legitimize rising populists, be they of monarchic descent, or recognisable faces from TV shows of doubtful taste.