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The Many Forms of Celebrity Populism in Eastern Europe

From Bulgaria to Croatia, celebrity politicians have ascended in Eastern Europe in recent times. Despite the similarities on a surface level, the two characters have chosen different paths when it comes to their respective movements. Their predecessor in Ukraine chose yet another one. This, in turn, greatly affects how the political shooting stars will stand the test of time.

From Musician to Politician

Although a former diplomat in Hungary and parliamentarian for the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica, HDZ-EPP), Miroslav Škoro is far better known in Croatia for his career as a patriotic pop-folk musician. Starting during Croatia’s War for Independence in the early ‘90s, Škoro had a number of hits related to the politically salient topic of war which made him a household name. This is particularly true in his native Slavonia, Croatia’s easternmost region, in which Škoro enjoys disproportionately high popularity.

In 2019, Škoro announced a run for President, challenging the incumbent centre-right President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović as well as her ruling HDZ party. He came a close third with 24.5%, falling short of the political revolution he hoped for. But demographic breakdowns for the first round showed Škoro won 32% of 18-29 year olds, while the eventual winner Zoran Milanović only managed 16%. Moreover, voters across all parties besides the main centre-left Social Democratic Party (Socijaldemokratska partija Hrvatske, SDP-S&D) and centre-right HDZ gave preference to Škoro.

Results of the first round of the Croatian Presidential Elections in January 2020

A disappointing result, but enough to move towards his true goal—uniting Croatia’s disunited right and anti-establishment forces around a single figure. On February 29, he announced the foundation of a new party—Miroslav Škoro’s Homeland Movement (Domovinski pokret Miroslava Škore, DPMŠ-ECR). Intending to align with the eurosceptic and conservative ECR group in the European Parliament, Škoro is making it clear what direction he hopes to take the country.

Croatia’s right has been plagued by numerous break-ups and schisms in recent years, which has weakened the powerful HDZ. Croatia’s political scene has been open to a major change for years, but no figure or party has been able to capitalise on the decline of the two established parties. That is exactly where Škoro hoped he could succeed where nobody else has, by uniting disparate right-wing and anti-establishment forces around himself as a well-known musician-turned-politician.

His party came short of the revolution he had hoped for in the 2020 Parliamentary election, winning slightly less than 11% of the vote, giving its alliance 16 seats but the party itself just 10. It was all the more disappointing since the HDZ got its strongest result in years, meaning Škoro will not even have a chance to influence the government as a coalition partner, and will instead be left out in the cold.

Škoro has taken an uncommon route for a celebrity politician in trying to rally existing and established political figures around himself. This is a stark contrast to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi, who built his own movement from scratch. In fact, Škoro’s strategy could be likened more to US President Donald Trump with a less confrontational attitude. Like Trump, Škoro would like political forces to let a celebrity lead them from political failure to leadership of the country.

To most, the comparison may seem derogatory, but there is no doubt that conservative factions in Croatia would love to repeat the electoral successes of their ideological counterparts such as Trump in the US or, maybe more fittingly, leader of the governing PiS (ECR) party in Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński. Croatia is similar in many ways to countries ruled by right-wing conservatives like Poland or Hungary, yet conservatives in Croatia have been pushed aside by centrist factions of the centre-right HDZ.

Thus far, though, Škoro has not managed to break past the 15% ceiling—until very recently in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic—that has been the bane of several Croatian anti-establishment parties. Human Shield (Živi Zid, ŽZ-NI)—once the premier anti-establishment party in Croatia—never managed to break past 15% support, eventually achieving far less in actual elections. Similarly, Bridge of Independent Lists (Most nezavisnih lista, MOST→ECR)—which played the role of kingmaker after the 2016 parliamentary elections—also never managed to break past the same ceiling of support.

From Zagreb to Sofia

On top of Croatia, a popular folk-pop musician is trying to make his breakthrough in politics of Bulgaria too. Being a singer and a showman, Slavi Trifonov is one of the most popular people in the country. His evening talk show, which has been one of the most popular in the country since 2000, makes Trifonov widely recognisable. Unlike Miroslav Škoro, Slavi Trifonov has employed a different way of gaining support with his political project. Stating that he did not aim at establishing a party, Trifonov focused his efforts on changing the politics from the bottom up.

Trifonov has not participated in any kind of elections since the start of his project. Instead, in 2016 he got enough signatures (672,488 valid signatures of the required 400,000) for a referendum to be held on several core questions. The first question revolved around a change in the electoral system, where the current proportional electoral system would be reformed into a majoritarian system with two rounds, with an option for preferential voting as the incumbent. The second question concerned compulsory voting and the third issue was on a cut of the state funding for political parties. The issues have been in line with the rhetoric of Trifonov stating that the established political elite needs to be changed.

The referendum was the first step of the ambitious showman. After reaching enough votes for the referendum to be considered in the parliament (but not necessarily enacted), Trifonov and his team took the next step. The parliament did not approve the proposed changes which led to an attempt of the establishment of a party ‘Nyama Takava Darzhava’ (‘No Such State’, NTV (*)) in October 2019. Much like in the case of Volodymyr Zelenskyi in Ukraine with his TV show (‘Sluha Narodu’, ‘Servant of the People’) the chosen name of Tifonov for his movement is a title of his own popular song, in an attempt to attract voters. The team of the talk show happened to be the founding members. The showman, however, did not repeat the manoeuvre of his Croatian colleague and referred to the project as a ‘political product’ because of widespread negative attitudes towards political parties existing in Bulgaria.

Counting on his popularity seemed to be a successful formula, since the party had 8,3% on the first poll it was included in, making it the 4th most popular in overall. The court rejected the registration of the party but it did not stop the showman, who announced that he would set his project up under the name ‘Ima Takav Narod’ (‘There Is Such a People’, ITN (*)). The party finally got registered in February 2020. As expected, Slavi Trifonov became the leader and his former screenwriters became deputy chairman of ITN. Nevertheless, the polls have shown stable results for his party making it the 4th or even the 3rd most popular one in the country.

The denial of Trifonov to call his movement a party is just one aspect of his public image. His rhetoric is focused on ‘empowering the people’ versus corrupted elites. Claiming to support the enactment of more direct democracy, he has stepped carefully and strategically into politics since 2016. In the still-ongoing COVID-19 situation, he and his team focused on severely criticizing the government for the self-isolation measures hoping to attract those most economically affected by it. The long-term future of the ‘political product’ remains uncertain, though a recent poll indicates that ITN has only gained support amidst the COVID pandemic.

The elites across Europe are gaining trust through the crises at the expense of the outsiders compared with the period before the spread of the virus. However, with a view towards the impending economic crises, the party may be thought of as a potentially successful challenger to the status quo.

The story of the decade

Celebrities-turned-politicians have become a familiar sight from Kyiv to Zagreb to Sofia—and now even Warsaw. Poland has provided yet another hint of what a celebrity-turned-politician might look like. Szymon Hołownia, a journalist and TV-celebrity in Poland who came third in the recent Polish presidential election and didn’t make it to the run-off, has shown signs of establishing a political movement in Poland. His project, the ‘post-ideological’ Polska 2050 (*), recently risen to a second place in a Polish opinion poll. Celebrities and politics will go hand in hand in Eastern Europe for years to come, regardless of the exact mechanisms, which there are as many as there are celebrities.

This article was co-authored by Teodora Yovcheva and Luka Ivan Jukić, our experts on Bulgaria and Croatia respectively.