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Bulgaria: Wild Card In Elections Could Be King

Could a former king -- who still claims the throne -- run for political office? That seemingly hypothetical question has sparked a heated debate in recent months in Bulgaria, where the country's last pre-Communism monarch is said to be considering a return to political life. RFE/RL correspondent Julia Guechakov examines the implications of the issue as the country prepares for elections later this year.

Prague, 28 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Simeon II acceded to the Bulgarian throne at the age of six in 1943 after the death of his father. He ruled under regencies until 1946, when a referendum called by the country's then-Communist regime abolished the monarchy and sent the royal family into exile.

Fifty years later, the deposed monarch returned for the first time to his homeland and was enthusiastically welcomed by hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians. Since then, he has come back for several more visits, and has had his Bulgarian citizenship restored and former property returned. But despite numerous contacts with politicians and other public figures in Bulgaria, Simeon has not played an active role in domestic politics.

That, however, may be changing. Earlier this year, Simeon expressed a desire to resettle permanently in Bulgaria. The statement prompted a group of lawmakers to ask the country's constitutional court for an interpretation of residency requirements for presidential candidates.

No mention was made of Simeon's case. But some politicians and analysts were quick to conclude that the lawmakers were aiming to clarify if the former monarch could run in the country's presidential elections due near the year's end.

The court ultimately ruled that a presidential candidate must live in Bulgaria for the greater part of the five years preceding a given election. That condition rules out any current presidential ambitions on the part of Simeon, who now lives in Spain.

However, the constitution does not rule out a possible run by the former monarch for a parliamentary seat. Simeon has been deliberately vague regarding his political ambitions, and has never laid out a political agenda. But in an emotional statement following the court ruling, he said those supporters "who were looking for a way to vote for Simeon would have the opportunity to do so." Many took this to mean the former king had cast his sights on the country's June parliamentary elections.

Political analyst Ognian Minchev says Simeon's possible ambitions may cause a shift in Bulgarian politics. He adds that many politicians may try to use the popular former king to improve their own political fortunes:

"Because of [these politicians being pushed to the sidelines of Bulgarian politics], the personality and the intentions of Simeon the second are a very useful means which could be employed, under certain circumstances, to bring those marginal political figures back to the center stage in political life."

A recent independent poll suggests that up to 8 percent of voters would support a party backed by Simeon, which would place it a comfortable third behind the anti-Communist Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and the opposition Socialist coalitions.

The UDF, which polls estimate would win 22 percent of the popular vote if the parliamentary elections were held now, could stand to lose a substantial portion of its supporters if a Simeon-backed party becomes an election-season reality. Earlier this month, senior UDF officials ruled against backing Simeon in parliamentary elections, and yesterday (Tuesday) expelled two prominent members who called for such support. Minchev explains the threat to the UDF this way:

"Simeon does not enter Bulgarian politics saying that he is ready, together with the UDF, to work toward a common goal. He enters Bulgarian political life independently and thus becomes a UDF competitor for votes in June parliamentary elections."

Minchev says Simeon's popularity is in large part due to voters' disillusionment with the political establishment and the hardships suffered during the country's difficult transition to a market economy. He adds that as an outsider, Simeon could give voters a fresh, untarnished alternative:

"We could say that Simeon is the last illusion of many ordinary Bulgarians -- that someone could come in from the outside and put Bulgaria in order."

For now, the two main political forces in Bulgaria seem unwilling to face the challenge of a potentially strong third force, even though such a force might turn out to be more imaginary than real.