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Bulgaria: Ex-King Set To Alter Political Landscape

  • Ron Synovitz

The political landscape that has existed in Bulgaria since 1990 is about to be altered by the country's former king, Simeon II. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz examines how the 63-year-old Simeon has emerged from nearly a half century of exile to lead a movement that appears set to win general elections on 17 June.

Prague, 7 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- With 10 days remaining before Bulgaria's general elections, opinion polls indicate that a political group of the country's former king, Simeon II, is likely to throw the existing political establishment into disarray.

In early April, when the former monarch first announced the formation of the National Movement Simeon II, polls showed monarchist parties had support from less than 10 percent of voters.

But the latest surveys show Simeon's movement is now a comfortable frontrunner, with support from more than 30 percent of the electorate.

By comparison, Prime Minister Ivan Kostov's Union of Democratic Forces is struggling for 20 percent of the vote, and the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party has the support of about 14 percent of the electorate.

In his campaign Simeon has stressed three goals: to improve living standards by establishing a functioning market economy; to abandon political partisanship in order to unify the country; and to eliminate corruption through new rules and institutions.

But when asked if he wants to reinstate the monarchy, Simeon has said only that it is not in his plans for now.

So far Simeon has avoided discussing foreign policy other than to say that he supports Bulgarian membership in the European Union and NATO -- a view shared by both the governing Union of Democratic Forces and the opposition Socialists.

Simeon has said that he will not take a seat in the parliament himself -- a position that leaves open the possibility of a later claim to the Bulgarian throne if the monarchy is reinstated. But the former king declines to clarify whether he intends to become prime minister if his movement wins the elections.

On 5 June Simeon provided details for the first time about the economic policies of his bloc. He vowed better living conditions for all Bulgarians regardless of ethnic backgrounds.

He said Bulgaria needs to change its legal system and to create more favorable conditions for foreign firms in order to attract investors.

He said international accounting standards are needed, along with steps to ensure that shares in Bulgarian firms are more accessible to international investors.

Simeon also said the fight against street crime, corruption, and tax evasion are priorities. He said spending on state bureaucracy will be cut and that extra money will go into higher pensions and salaries for teachers, police, and medical workers.

He said small and medium-sized businesses will gain access to affordable loans. He also raised the possibility of declaring a financial amnesty in order to encourage the return of billions of dollars that have been illegally transferred abroad since 1989.

But critics in Sofia say Simeon remains vague about how to achieve his promise to improve conditions for all Bulgarians within 800 days. Sofia-based political analyst Vasil Garnizov is among those critics:

"In his first public appearance on 6 April, Simeon made a statement like a messiah. He said 'I will come and make a miracle in 800 days. Everybody will be happy and everybody will love each other.' But [on 5 June,] he made a statement that was more like [a politician.] He didn't mention this promise about 800 days, and he didn't elaborate on how he is going to make this miracle happen. At the same time, he said there will be something for everybody if his movement gets substantial support."

Stefan Popov, the director of the Open Society Fund in Sofia, told RFE/RL that he thinks Simeon has been forced to elaborate on an economic platform because opinion polls show his support is no longer growing.

"[The 5 June speech] was the first statement by Simeon with some concrete elements since his first announcement about his political movement on 6 April. It looks as if his advisers have realized that a vacuum has appeared [regarding his policy plans] and that some concrete remarks are needed -- that his silence cannot go on until the election. But despite this, his latest statement is not concrete enough and did not qualify anything about future policies."

One of Simeon's chief economic advisers, Nikolai Vassilev, has provided further details on how the movement hopes to improve the economy. Vassilev told the "Financial Times" of London this week that the group would introduce exemptions from profit taxes for firms that reinvest their earnings in ways that improve productivity.

Vassilev also said Simeon's group would complete the process of privatization within two to three years. Almost 90 percent of Bulgaria's state-owned companies have already been sold off.

In April, Prime Minister Kostov initially indicated a willingness to work with Simeon's movement. Kostov's Union of Democratic Forces, which has controlled an absolute majority in parliament since the last elections in 1997, has not ruled out the possibility of a coalition with Simeon's group.

But Kostov has criticized the lack of clarity about Simeon's political intentions. Responding to Simeon's latest economic proclamations, Kostov said yesterday that the movement's program remains unclear.

Support for Kostov's center-right coalition has dwindled due to painful economic reforms that have been imposed since 1997 to bring the country back from the brink of economic ruin. Corruption scandals also have eroded Kostov's support base.

The former communists in the Socialist Party also say they are not ruling out a possible coalition with Simeon's movement. But like Kostov, the Socialists are demanding guarantees that protect Bulgaria's constitutional status as a republic.

Simeon was six years old when he ascended to the throne after his father, King Boris III, died in 1943. Simeon was expelled from Bulgaria after World War II, when the country was firmly under Soviet domination. He has never recognized a 1946 referendum that abolished the monarchy and sent him into exile.

Simeon has spent most of his life in Spain working as a financial consultant. He has not yet revealed the nature of his business or details about his personal wealth.