How are they going to stop the referendum? How are they going to stop me?" TV host Slavi Trifonov asked furiously and rhetorically in his own talk show on the biggest national television channel bTV just days after the presidential elections in November 2016. The reason behind his outburst was the call by MPs to ignore the outcome of the national referendum initiated by Mr Trifonov that took place alongside the elections.
The referendum had three questions: should parliament adopt a bill to change the electoral system to a majoritarian one that would select members of parliament in two rounds; should state subsidies for political parties be cut from 5.5 euro to 0.5 euro for every vote cast in favor of a party; and should voting became compulsory. All three questions passed with an overwhelming majority of close to 2:1 in a referendum that mustered 3.5 million votes.
Due to electoral rules though, the results of the referendum were not compulsory for parliament to enact without amending the questions. This, however, was not something Mr. Trifonov would agree on - for him and his team that started the referendum campaign a year earlier, if the parliament didn’t enact the changes this would amount to treason. In his own words, the politicians would be going against the will of their sovereign, which calls for a mass protest, and a protest he promised. "The only obligation of the next parliament is to unconditionally enact the decisions of the referendum in the first two weeks of its life", wrote Mr Trifonov in an open letter at the end of January 2017. If the parliament doesn’t do that and doesn’t dissolve itself according to the terms set by the TV host, Trifonov announced he will take to the streets and protest against the politicians.
He’s not joking. In the days prior to the referendum, Mr Trifonov and his team organized a huge protest rally in support of the changes to the electoral code that attracted over 100,000 people, according to the showman’s own estimates.. Mr Trifonov’s popularity comes from his successful musical career - he is arguably the most recognizable musician from the first post-1989 generation. His career spans over 25 years and his night-time talk show is one of the longest running on a Bulgarian TV channel.
Mr Trifonov is seen as a rebel, as he has somehow always managed to maintain a depoliticized, antisystemic image, though he has been proven to be close to many controversial politicians, such as the honorary leader of ethnic-business party Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) Ahmed Dogan, ex-president Georgi Parvanov and ex-PM Boyko Borissov.
Actually, these are exactly the people the majoritarian system advocated by Mr Trifonov will benefit the most - the leaders of the major political parties. In an open letter in the days prior to the referendum, more than 40 leading political scientists warned that the introduction of a majoritarian electoral system in Bulgarian politics would give a huge boost to the two or three biggest political parties that still control a serious portion of the organizational and monetary resource. Of course, Mr Trifonov and his team ignored the warnings and claimed that the political scientists are just a by-product of the current political system that defends the old order. Actually, "Slavi’s Show" has been attacking various institutions, including the President, the Constitutional Court members, as well as the members of Parliament, without any consideration of media (or civilized) ethics - they were called traitors, their portraits were torn apart, with all this happening in the prime time of Bulgaria’s biggest TV channel.
Even if it turns out that Slavi Trifonov’s actions were inspired only by a decision to substitute the dwindling sense of humor of his show with a political agenda to keep its rating high, he and his team should be on your watch list in the following months of political uncertainty.