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Bulgaria: Simeon's Movement Defeats Ruling UDF In Parliamentary Elections

A movement launched only two months ago by Bulgaria's former king soundly defeated the four-year-old ruling center-right coalition in the country's parliamentary elections yesterday. Simeon II thus became the first former monarch in post-communist Eastern Europe to make a successful political comeback in his homeland.

Prague, 18 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In Bulgaria's parliamentary elections yesterday, voters flocked to support a movement created by the country's last king.

Bulgaria's Central Electoral Commission said today that with nearly all votes counted, support for the coalition led by the National Movement Simeon II stood at just over 43 percent. The result is more than double the votes received by the ruling center-right coalition of Union of Democratic Forces (ODS), which took just 18 percent.

The commission today said that Simeon's movement will most likely have 120 seats in the 240-seat parliament, meaning it will fall short of winning an absolute majority.

Simeon, declaring victory late last night, said Bulgaria was about to embark on a new path: "After today's vote, Bulgaria is not the same. I am convinced that together we are embarking today on a path of moral and economic renovation."

Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, whose Union of Democratic Forces dominates the ruling ODS coalition, conceded the ODS had suffered "a heavy election defeat." Kostov blamed the defeat on what he called the "unpopular decisions" the ruling coalition had made in moving the country toward a functioning market economy: "We have made a lot of unpopular decisions, and [we have] also made mistakes and misjudgments. Obviously, we wanted the voter to pay a higher price than he was prepared to pay."

The country's Socialist Party of former communists -- who, along with the ODS, have alternated in governing the country since the end of one-party rule in 1989 -- was the election's other big loser. A Socialist-led coalition came in third with around 17 percent.

Of the other 32 parties with candidates running for election, only the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) met the 4-percent requirement needed to enter parliament, receiving just under 7 percent. The DPS has traditionally been the third-largest parliamentary faction since 1989.

Final election results are expected by Wednesday. Preliminary figures put voter turnout at nearly 67 percent -- slightly higher than the last general election in 1997.

"Trust me" was the pivotal phrase in Simeon's election campaign, in which the former king promised new moral standards in politics, increased wages and pensions for public sector workers, and interest-free loans for small entrepreneurs.

The popularity of Simeon's movement, however, seems to be rooted not so much in trust as in voter disenchantment with ODS rule. Kostov's government was the first since 1989 to serve its full four-year term. But despite a series of foreign policy successes and sound macroeconomic results, the ODS had begun to fall out of favor because of Bulgaria's low living standards and allegations of high-level corruption within the coalition.

The election results appear to have confirmed the successful political emergence of Simeon II, who has spent most of his adult life living in Spain. But the results do not answer the question of who will rule the country for the next four years. In the run-up to the election, the movement had said that it may seek a broad coalition.

Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov, who today congratulated Simeon's movement on its election victory, called for continuity and greater consensus in politics. He appeared to back a broad coalition government:

"Even if you have the chance to govern on your own, it is better to make use of the achievements, the potential, and the experience of other political parties and [prominent] Bulgarian personalities." Neither the ODS nor the Socialists have ruled out participating in a coalition. The DPS has said openly that it is ready to join.

The ODS would seem the logical partner for Simeon's movement, as the two coalitions' foreign-policy and economic priorities do not differ substantially.

ODS Chief Secretary Ekaterina Mihailova yesterday reiterated that the ODS is open to coalition talks with Simeon's movement -- provided that the ODS's traditional rival, the Socialists, are not invited to participate: "We cannot join any form of government with the participation, or the backing, of the Bulgarian Socialist Party."

But other prominent ODS members -- including Sofia's popular mayor, Stefan Sofianski -- have indicated they might accept a compromise. Indeed, the ruling coalition may face deep internal turmoil in the wake of yesterday's resounding defeat. Prime Minister Kostov has already hinted he may resign as ODS leader:

"I know what is expected to be done at this moment. I personally will do it at the time and place most appropriate for the ODS." Even if Simeon's movement is unable to form a coalition with ODS, however, a partnership with the relatively small DPS would still be likely to give the former monarch's group a solid majority in parliament.

It remains unclear what role Simeon himself is likely to play in Bulgaria's future government. Simeon, who was forced into exile by Bulgaria's former communist rulers in 1946, has never abdicated the throne. But he insists that restoration of the monarchy is not "the order of the day."

Simeon himself did not run in the election, but could still become prime minister in a future government. But for now, the former king -- who describes himself as the unifier of the nation -- has not indicated that he intends to do so.

Bulgaria's Constitutional Court barred Simeon from running in presidential elections due at the end of this year because he has not lived in the country for the past five years. But analysts say that his coalition -- with the possible backing of other political parties -- could now muster the required two-thirds parliamentary majority to push through constitutional amendments to remove that obstacle.

Just 10 days before the parliamentary election, President Stoyanov announced that he will seek a second term. Stoyanov, who was elected in 1996 on the ODS ticket, said this time he will run as an independent. The announcement itself was not unexpected, but its timing suggested that the contest with the former king may not end with the parliamentary election. Ahead of the poll, Stoyanov threw his weight behind the ODS -- which said it, in return, will back him for a second term.