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Bulgaria: Former Communist Joins Former Monarch At Helm

Bulgarians have elected the leader of the former communist party to be the country's next president. According to unofficial results, Socialist Party leader Georgi Parvanov has a comfortable lead over incumbent Petar Stoyanov in yesterday's runoff presidential election. Parvanov is the first Socialist to win a presidential election in Bulgaria since the collapse of one-party communist rule.

Prague, 19 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For the second time this year, Bulgarians voted for change.

Weary of economic hardships, voters showed yesterday they wanted an end to poverty and alleged widespread corruption blamed on the previous center-right government by electing as president the leader of the once-communist Socialist party. In a general election earlier this year, they sent out the same clear message by returning the country's former king as prime minister.

Unofficial results gave Socialist leader Georgi Parvanov around 53 percent of the vote. His opponent, incumbent Petar Stoyanov, who was running as an independent, received less than 47 percent. Final official results are expected by tomorrow.

Voter turnout was around 55 percent, significantly higher than in the first round one week ago (11 November). Voter turnout below the required 50 percent, and the failure of any of the six candidates running in the first round to obtain a majority, triggered the runoff.

Parvanov, in a late-night press conference yesterday, acknowledged that voter disillusionment and anger were the main causes behind his victory.

"[That's why] the vote [both] on November 11 and November 18 is an expression of voters' desire for a change, a change to the better."

Stoyanov, who conceded defeat before official results were released, defended his record.

"Despite the loss of these elections, I do not think that my term in office was unsuccessful."

During his five-year term, Stoyanov worked hard toward achieving Bulgaria's foreign policy priorities for eventual membership in NATO and the EU. But in domestic policy, he was seen as too closely linked to the shortcomings of the previous government of the center-right Union of Democratic Forces (SDS).

Stoyanov, once an SDS member, won his first term in office in 1996 on the UDF ticket. In this presidential election, he was backed by both the SDS and the National Movement Simeon II, the right-leaning ruling coalition led by former king Simeon Saxecoburggotski.

Parvanov -- a 44-year-old historian -- took over the leadership of his party in late 1996. Despite fierce opposition by hardline ex-communists, he relinquished power several months later during mass street protests against mismanagement by the then-Socialist government. The sweeping victory of the former king's party in June of this year relegated the Socialists to the position of the third-ranking political force.

Parvanov is seeking to build himself an image as a modern social democratic leader while retaining the support of the party's core of mostly elderly former communists. He said yesterday he will "always remain left-oriented," but promised he will be a president for all Bulgarians.

"I will be a president of all Bulgarian citizens regardless of ethnicity, religion, or political affiliations. Of course, once I take office, I will no longer let myself be identified with any political party, including the parties which nominated me [to the presidency]."

Parvanov, who had been leading in the first round by just over 1 percent, in the runoff received the support of the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS). The memories of the repression they suffered under the former communist regime are still fresh for many of Bulgaria's 800,000 ethnic Turks. DPS leader Ahmed Dogan acknowledged that the decision to back Parvanov in the runoff was a difficult one but said the remains of the past had to be cast away.

"For us, that decision was truly difficult. But we took it in all responsibility, fully convinced that we are making an investment in the future."

Unofficial results show that of those ethnic Turks who voted, up to 70 percent backed Parvanov in the runoff. Several Romany organizations also backed Parvanov.

The DPS is a junior partner in the former king's government, but both Dogan and leaders of the National Movement have repeatedly stressed that support for different presidential candidates does not affect their coalition agreement.

Parvanov pledged to work with the government of the former king, who was exiled by the former communist rulers in 1946. But he stressed he will uphold the republican institutions.

"I want to assure you that I will be president of the Republic of Bulgaria, that I will uphold and defend the nature of Bulgaria as a parliamentary republic."

The Socialist party is in opposition, but Prime Minister Saxecoburggotski included two Socialists in his government as experts. The formerly ruling SDS has accused the Socialists of tacitly backing the government. The SDS has also accused the former king of giving Stoyanov only lukewarm support, accusations that his National Movement denies.

The former monarch has not yet publicly reacted to the outcome of yesterday's runoff.

In his pre-election campaign, Parvanov stressed social issues, pledging to work toward improving poor living standards and fighting corruption. Stoyanov made similar pledges. Without corresponding efforts by the government, however, those promises will be hard to keep, as the president has limited powers and his influence is mostly felt in foreign policy.

Parvanov pledged to further pursue Bulgaria's drive to join NATO and the European Union. Saxecoburggotski has also set eventual membership in NATO and the EU as his government's foreign-policy priorities.

"In foreign policy, I will work toward maximum continuity and toward speeding up [Bulgaria's] negotiations for accession in the European Union and the [North Atlantic] alliance."

But Parvanov warned that integration will depend on steps Bulgaria itself takes toward possible accession.

The president-elect also said it is important to revive Bulgaria's relations with Russia, Ukraine, and what he described as "other strategic partners."

Bulgaria is seeking an invitation next year to join NATO and hopes to be admitted into the EU in 2006. The European Union last week said it could take in up to 10 new members as soon as 2004 -- but left out Bulgaria and Romania.

Bulgaria's next president takes office at the end of January.