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Bulgarian Opposition Seeks Common Presidential Candidate

Prague, May 30 (RFE/RL) - Sofia's anti-communist opposition parties will conduct a primary on Saturday with the aim of fielding a single candidate in presidential elections later this year.

Since 1990, the former communists in the Socialist Party have maintained strict party discipline -- an important factor in winning their parliamentary majority in the elections of December 1994.

Opposition leaders now say that they must join together with similar discipline in order to keep the Socialists from winning presidential elections this year. The Socialists have not yet named a candidate.

Presidential powers under Bulgaria's constitution are largely ceremonial, but nevertheless, the upcoming election is crucial for the opposition. Incumbent President Zhelyu Zhelev is one of the last remaining anti-communist voices in a major political office in Sofia.

In Saturday's primary, the 61-year-old Zhelev will vie against a young lawyer named Petar Stoyanov for support of non-communist voters.

Stoyanov was nominated in March by a national convention of the main opposition group, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF).

Zhelev had been a member of the UDF when he first became head of state in 1990. However, the president distanced himself from the UDF in August, 1992 -- a move that remains a major point of contention between Zhelev and the UDF today.

Zhelev was nominated as a candidate of the second largest opposition group, the People's Union, which is comprised of the Public Union, the Bulgarian Agrarian Union and Democratic Party.

Both Stoyanov and Zhelev have agreed to respect the verdict in the primary and drop out of the presidential race if they lose on Saturday. The UDF and the People's Union also have agreed to back whoever wins this weekend's ballot.

A third opposition group, the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF), will vote on Saturday. However, MRF leader Ahmed Dogan has said that members should vote their conscience.

If all parties stick to their promises, Saturday's poll would mark a significant development for Bulgaria's splintered opposition.

A UDF-led coalition won a narrow parliamentary majority in the 1991 general elections only to see that majority erode when the MRF broke away a year later. The UDF subsequently split into smaller political groups. The People's Union emerged in 1994 out of a regrouping of opposition politicians, including former UDF parliamentary speaker Stefan Savov.

Stoyanov said he respects Zhelev as a "serious politician" but believes he has better chances to win the primaries. He also has said that he would seek to dissolve the parliament if elected.

Zhelev says a unified opposition has a realistic chance to retain the presidency, and to demand and win early parliamentary elections.

Calling for an overhaul of the current parliamentary system, Zhelev said this week that only a stronger presidency could rescue Bulgaria from its current economic crisis. Zhelev says he will push for a stronger presidency "within the existing constitution."