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Bulgaria: A New Populist Player in Town

Two weeks ago a new populist party appeared in Bulgaria. Recent tailing off of populist growth in Western European democracies could lead you to ignore this change, but Eastern Europe is slightly different.

Since the region experienced the transition to democracy and market economy after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the political situation has been rather unpredictable. Parties created around charismatic leaders frequently emerge, something which is especially true for Bulgaria. Having the former Communist party occupy the left, the developing right has been unstable and fragmented. After the steady collapse of the Union of Democratic Forces, the right-wing was mostly occupied by GERB (EPP) – a populist party established by the former General Secretary of Ministry of Interior Boyko Borissov. Before the appearance of Borissov’s party, however, the former Bulgarian king formed a party (NDSV-ALDE->RE) which was a key player for 8 years.

The heavy economic reforms during the transition period led to strong anti-elite attitudes among voters, providing fruitful ground for the emergence and success of populist parties. Starting with NDSV, the process continues and the newest link in the chain is “No such state”. The party was founded by the popular TV host and singer Slavi Trifonov and named after one of his songs. His political ambitions began with organizing a referendum for a change in the electoral system and a reduction of state party funding. These issues are the main party’s goals, Trifonov posted on Facebook.

Meanwhile, parliament passed a bill for the reduction of state funding from 6€ per vote to 0,50€. This move deprived the party of one of its strongest populist complaints – what it claims as the misuse of public money funding corrupt politicians.

The referendum also insisted on the replacement of the proportional system with a majoritarian one. It acted as a springboard for the ambitious showman, but it was only considered in parliament and not actually held. He blamed the political class for not respecting the “will of the people”. From this, he announced his “political product”, as he called it, not a political party because he claims political parties are the problem. The majoritarian system is perceived as a mode for electing people, not parties according to the showman and his team. It is a clear strategic move for the new party as his team are highly popular. Moreover, the insistence on a majoritarian system plays on the personalisation of Bulgarian politics where charismatic leaders frequently emerge and win power.

The case of Zelensky (SN-*) in Ukraine and Five Star Movement (M5S-NI) are encouraging for the success of parties created around popular individuals. Bearing in mind the discontent in Bulgarian society for being the poorest state in EU, the appearance of this new player could be significant. Pollster Alpha Research shows support of around 11% for the party at this early stage. Trifonov may struggle to meet the success of Zelensky, but it is really too early to say. The challenge for Trifonov will be to find way to transfer his popularity to electoral support, a particular challenge given the erratic nature of the Bulgarian electorate.

(Euan Healey, Editor of Europe Elects, was a contributing editor)