Who wins an election where everyone's a loser?
Most public opinion agencies got it wrong. Following a month of an exceptionally tepid (even in Bulgarian standards) election campaign, in which the coronavirus pandemic was hardly mentioned, Bulgarians went to the polls to elect their new parliament. The voter turnout was about 50 percent, which is about usual for Bulgarian elections. Bulgarians, contrary to what pollsters of all shapes and sizes had predicted, defied the coronavirus frenzy and went to cast their ballots in person, both in Bulgaria and abroad. They voted with their feet.
Then, as the election results started pouring in, the general public began to realise that conducting opinion polls in Bulgaria is more of an art form than a science. Most of the predictions turned out to be wrong. No one had thought that both the ruling GERB of Boyko Borisov and its chief foe in parliament, the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, would lose so heavily. No one had imagined the ITN, or There Is Such a People party of TV personality Slavi Trifonov, would win so massively and become the second largest faction in the 45th Bulgarian National Assembly. Few could picture the DB, or Democratic Bulgaria, previously thought just able to jump over the 4 percent threshold, getting as much as 9 percent of the vote. And no one, not even in their wildest imagination, could guess Bulgarian Summer, the political project of former gambling boss Vasil "The Skull" Bozhkov, currently in hiding from the Bulgarian police in Dubai, would garner as much as 3 percent of the vote, just short of being able to enter parliament.
Why did the citizens of Europe's poorest state vote the way they did?
First the good news. The new Bulgarian parliament will have none of the extreme nationalist parties that Boyko Borisov comfortably ruled in alliance with for the past four years. Both the ominously named VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, and the NFSB, or National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, are out. The election slogan of the VMRO was "Bulgaria Above All." Bulgarians of voting age, apparently, got fed up with the tales of historical military victories over Turks and Serbs and of the imaginary prospects of expanding Bulgaria's borders from the Black to the Aegean and the Adriatic seas.
Salad days: Slavi Trifonov, the leader of There Is Such a People party, used to advertise a cellular network operator
The second good news is that Boyko Borisov's grip on power, almost uninterrupted since 2009, appears to be a thing of the past. Borisov's authoritarian methods coupled with his pugilist nativism, which his supporters had thought endearing in the 2010s, are now mainly the butt of jokes.
The good news ends here because what the 2021 general election has illustrated is that in the murky world of Bulgarian politics it is not enough to win an election because election victories may turn to be illusionary.
Boyko Borisov did win the election. His GERB emerged as the largest party in the National Assembly. But his victory was a pyrrhic one. He found himself isolated from everyone else, even from his former pals in one of his governments, the DB, or Democratic Bulgaria. They are now his most outspoken challengers. To add insult to injury, his GERB now get booed at inside the National Assembly. Boyko Borisov, a former fireman and bodyguard in the 1990s (when the protection business was eponymous with organised crime) is a bad loser. Some of his former karate partners have described him as one who loves to trample over the weak but ducks whenever someone stronger appears in the rink. Fearing he will be ridiculed by some "hysterical women" in parliament (a reference, in his inimitable style, to Tatyana Doncheva, now a deputy speaker of parliament, and Maya Manolova, the leader of the Stand Up! Mafia Out! party) he did not even show up to hand in his government's resignation. Instead, he sent it by post... and took a holiday. When parliament voted to summon him up for an explanation, which he is legally obliged to obey, he promptly suffered a leg injury and went to hospital. Sick leave. To put it in another way, GERB won the battle – but lost the war.
The BSP, Borisov's main political opponent, did very badly. They lost as much as 10 percent of their voters compared to the pervious election in 2017, and are no longer the second largest party in the Bulgarian parliament. Many observers explain the downfall with Kornelia Ninova's micromanagement of the organisation. This is only a part of the story, however. The main thing is that the BSP have consistently failed to produce any meaningful messages and election promises to attract voters outside their own hardcore base. Laying flowers for Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's last Communist dictator, and eulogising the successes of the Communist-run economy in 1944-1989 can hardly convince the generation born in 1990. Yet, the BSP remain quite consistent in their opposition to Borisov and his "deep state." Though various commentators now vie to play down the BSP's role during the 2020 massive anti-GERB protests in central Sofia, Kornelia Ninova's party was at the time the only parliamentary represented entity that defied Borisov's rule. In contrast, Slavi Trifonov's scriptwriters never took to the streets.
Which brings us to the "wildest horse" in the 2021 general election: Slavi Trifonov's There Is Such a People party, which was formerly known as the There Is No Such a State party, a name the election officials in Bulgaria refused to register because they deemed it derogatory. Trifonov has been a TV host since 2000 when he started his popular Slavi's Show programme, modelled on Thomas Gottschalk in Germany and David Letterman in the United States. He has a history of falling out with the authorities in the 1990s, when he was mainly a musician and a satirical entertainer. In the early 2000s he was a friend of Boyko Borisov's when the latter was this country's top policeman. They fell out when Borisov became the mayor of Sofia, allegedly over some unfilled promises, and have been critical to each other ever since.
Slavi Trifonov is one of the epitomes of Bulgaria's chalga culture. In Bulgaria, chalga, as this journal has repeatedly reported in the past, is not just the gaudy music with hot Balkan rhythms, scantily clad fake blondes and macho Bulgars making easy money and driving fast cars. Through the years chalga has become one of the telltale cultural signs of this country. There are now chalga scientists (people who ostensibly espouse science but in fact produce news that are interesting to hear but have nothing to do with scientific realities), chalga historians (who endorse building fake forts to celebrate imaginary achievements in the Middle Ages), chalga girls (who do not necessarily listen to chalga music but would go out with anyone who flashes the keys of an expensive car). "A Red Ferrari" was one of Slavi Trifonov's hits in his early career. To culture, chalga is what populism is to politics. With so many years as a successful TV personality Slavi Trifonov knows best how to use it. Ergo, his huge success at the 2021 election. His loss? That he and his advisers appear as stunned in the face of victory as their critics.
Diametrically opposed to Trifonov, and with much worse election results, is DB, or Democratic Bulgaria. The proponents of that grouping, which was an ally to Boyko Borisov in the 2010s, consider themselves to be well educated, pro-Western, pro-democracy, anti-Communist rightwing intellectuals. They know how to write long posts on social media and they rarely fail to condemn from the sidelines anything they see out of their classy comfort zone. Their chief demands are anti-Borisov, anti-Geshev (Bulgaria's chief prosecutor) and anti-DPS, the Turkish-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms party. The DB are elitist to the point of snobbishness. Their members consider themselves to be "smart and beautiful." Consequently, the DB have few supporters outside central Sofia.
The DB did score a significant success in the general election as they garnered about 9 percent of the vote, including a sizeable portion of the ballots cast by Bulgarians living abroad. Their loss, however, was that, overwhelmingly, the Bulgarians abroad voted for Slavi Trifonov rather than for DB's Hristo Ivanov. The "smart and beautiful" discovered the hard way that in politics a few rabble-rousing chalga songs mean a lot more than long posts on Facebook – or a PR gig at the gates of the Black Sea residence of Ahmed Dogan, the behind-the-scenes leader of the DPS.
The DPS, who are ahead of the DB in the 2021 general election, seem to be the only "old" party in the Bulgarian parliament that has performed relatively consistently in every election since the 1990s. It has usually emerged as the third largest party, bound to hold the balance of power. It is now the fourth, behind the There Is Such a People and the BSP. Nominally, it is a party that is supposed to protect the rights of Bulgaria's Muslims, who account for about 10 percent of the population and who under Communism were repressed at various times and in various ways. The DB's anti-DPS rhetoric is a double-edged sword. The DB may be right in their allegations of corrupt practices involving senior DPS officials. But sooner or later the DB will discover that by systematically demonising the DPS they in fact alienate its voters who outnumber the DB's own.
Chalga is the preferred music and cultural symbol for Bulgaria's mutri. In the past, this journal has repeatedly carried reports to explain what a mutra is. It is the type of big- or small-time gangster with close-cropped head, sporting an expensive label jogging suit and driving a good German car. It is the kind of driver who will never give you way on the road, the kind of criminal who likes to show off his money because he knows in the current climate of impunity his continued well-being will be guaranteed. The problem with mutri for English speakers is that the word is impossible to translate. This journal usually sticks to "gangster," but as this parliament's smallest yet very vocal party takes the word mutra in its name, we will change to the more easy-to-understand "mafia." Stand Up! Mafia Out! was born in the street protests that engulfed central Sofia in 2020. The name spell out the party's main demands: citizens should rise for their rights and kick the mutri out. Whether any of those succeed will depend on the readiness of Bulgarians to express their anger with the status quo with actions rather than with words, and with their ability to find common ground with the other anti-GERB parties represented in the National Assembly.
The April 2021 election has indicated several things. Firstly, one of the results of Boyko Borisov's methods of running Bulgaria is that now about anyone has the moral right to rule. Second, that Bulgaria is at present more divided than ever – even more than at the end of hardline Communism in 1989. And third, that if they want to achieve their declared aim of overturning GERB's juggernaut all parties in the National Assembly must be ready to make significant compromises both among themselves and with the voters who elected them. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to do any of that.