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Bulgaria: Former King Marks First 100 Days As Prime Minister

  • Julia Guechakov

When Bulgaria's former king and his fledgling coalition swept parliamentary elections earlier this year, it was amid promises of a new beginning for the country, politically and economically. But now, after 100 days under its new government, some Bulgarians are asking if any of these promises can truly be kept.

Prague, 5 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- "Trust me" was the campaign slogan that helped Bulgaria's former king, Simeon II, win the country's parliamentary vote in June by a landslide.

One hundred days into his government, however, the former monarch-turned-prime minister may be beginning to see that public trust erode.

In its pre-election campaign, the National Movement Simeon II coalition set up by the former king -- who now goes by his civilian name, Simeon Saxecoburggotski -- promised to root out corruption and radically improve living standards. Moreover, Simeon pledged that it would take just 800 days for his government to achieve those goals.

In a country where the average monthly salary is about $120 and unemployment stands at 17 percent, delivering on such promises would seem to require a miracle.

Yet, weary of years of economic hardship and widespread corruption, Bulgarians appeared ready to take the former king at his word. His new government came into office amid unprecedented 80-percent approval ratings.

Three months later public approval has dropped by more than 20 percent, although it still stands relatively high at 57 percent.

Marking his first 100 days in office last week, Simeon said his government had adopted a new approach stressing public dialogue, political tolerance, and high professional standards. In a statement read on national television, Simeon said that despite the fact his ruling coalition had inherited a hidden deficit of some 640 million levs (about $300 million), it was continuing to pursue its main priority of raising living standards.

By contrast, the center-right Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), still smarting from its crushing election defeat, says Simeon's first 100 days in office have been 100 days of chaos. During parliamentary debates late last week (2 November), Nadezhda Mihailova, former SDS foreign minister, hinted at the unpredictable consequences of what her party says is total lack of management.

"We would like to know who is governing [the country]. The National Movement Simeon II, which won the election, or the coalition of the Socialists and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, who were allowed to make [cabinet] appointments instead? This government began its rule as in a fairy tale. [That's why], in conclusion, I would like to remind you of a passage in 'Alice in Wonderland,' which says that if you don't know which way you are heading, go whichever way you please and you will get where you least expect."

The opposition Socialists also attacked the government's performance on social policies. The cabinet includes two Socialist ministers -- albeit at the expert level -- and the Socialists previously had been seen as indirectly backing the government. Socialist deputy Rumen Ovcharov had this to say.

"[The National Movement Simeon II] came to power promising immediate and real increase in pensions, allowances for children, and income. Now people have [instead] immediate and real increases in electricity and home heating prices, real estate tax, and prices of medicines and other commodities."

The junior partner in the ruling coalition, the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), stood by its bigger coalition partner saying economic miracles could not be expected. DPS deputy Lutvi Mestan said there was every reason to believe the new government was following its promised program.

"Based on the extremely high expectations of Bulgarian voters, the assessment [of the government's performance] may not be the most positive. But compared to what has been achieved by all previous cabinets, I believe we do not have grounds for a negative assessment of its first 100 days [in office].

Foreign policy performance appears to be the only undisputed achievement of the government, which has kept membership in NATO and the European Union top priorities for Bulgaria. After an initially puzzled reaction from the West, Simeon -- the first former monarch to make a political comeback in postcommunist Eastern Europe -- is now seen as a solid partner.

Economically, the former king has faced greater challenges. Ahead of the June elections, Simeon's coalition promised to cut taxes, grant interest-free loans to encourage small and medium-sized businesses, and to attract foreign investments. But tough talks with the International Monetary Fund on new funding have forced the government to curb some of its plans to increase social spending and ease taxes.

The government already has taken some steps toward fulfilling its promises. It raised the minimum monthly wage (from $39 to $46) and cut some direct taxes. But that was coupled with a 60 percent increase in real estate tax and increases in some excise taxes, leading to some price hikes.

The new cabinet, which includes many Western-trained young experts with little political experience at home, was slow in formulating its program, which many critics said was further proof it lacked a coherent governing strategy.

But some concede initial expectations for the new government may have been too high. Even before elections, local and foreign economic experts had warned that some of the pre-election promises were populist and would be hard to keep.

Speaking at a public ceremony last week, Simeon said only joint efforts on the part of the entire nation would make it possible to overcome hardships.

"God willing, [let us hope that] we will soon go from the [current] state of [fighting for] survival to a [state of] prosperousness, made possible by our joint efforts, by all of us."

Simeon's government still has 700 days to make good on its pledges before its self-imposed deadline comes due.