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2001 In Review: Bulgarians Elect A King And A Socialist

2001 will be remembered in Bulgaria as the year when voter dissatisfaction with economic woes and high-level corruption altered the political landscape in surprising ways. In June, the country's former king, Simeon II, reclaimed political power through the ballot box -- the first such case in postcommunist Eastern Europe. In November, Socialist Party leader Georgi Parvanov defeated incumbent Petar Stoyanov for the presidency.

Prague, 18 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In the decade that followed the collapse of one-party communist rule, Bulgaria has been governed either by cabinets of the Socialist Party of former communists or the anti-Communist Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). The emergence of the National Movement for Simeon II -- a diverse grouping of individuals set up by the former king just two months before the June general election -- dramatically altered the political landscape.

Tired of economic hardship and allegations of high-level corruption, Bulgarians were hoping the former monarch would forge a new beginning.

On voting day, Simeon promised them exactly that: "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."

One-hundred days into its government, the National Movement for Simeon II admitted that some of its pre-election promises were turning out to be hard to keep. When he took office in July, Simeon -- as prime minister, now publicly referred to as Simeon Saxecoburggotski -- enjoyed an approval rating of 80 percent. Since then, that rating has fallen to around 50 percent.

Five months after they voted into office a right-leaning former monarch as prime minister, Bulgarians elected a left-leaning Socialist Party leader as their president.

Georgi Parvanov, who is to be sworn into office in January, has acknowledged that voter disillusionment and anger were -- as with the June parliamentary election -- the main causes of his strong support in both the first-round ballot and the subsequent run-off.

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

Parvanov added after his victory that he will "always remain left-oriented," but he also promised to be a president for all Bulgarians.

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

Parvanov's victory came as a surprise. Incumbent Petar Stoyanov, running as an independent for a second term in office, had the backing of both the opposition UDF and the ruling National Movement for Simeon II, and was initially considered an almost certain winner.

But helping to elect Parvanov, the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms -- a junior partner in the governing coalition -- broke ranks with their senior partner, the National Movement Simeon II. In the runoff, the Turkish group endorsed Parvanov.

Bulgaria's 800,000 ethnic Turks suffered brutal repressions at the hands of the former communist rulers, but MRF leader Ahmed Dogan said the endorsement of Parvanov was an "investment in the future."

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

For now, the cohabitation of the former king-turned-prime minister and the Socialist president-elect looks likely to be less unwieldy than expected.

Simeon Saxecoburggotski and Parvanov met formally in December and pledged to jointly support Bulgaria's bids to join NATO and the European Union. They also agreed to put off a decision on some contentious domestic issues until after the president's inauguration in January.

The emergence of the National Movement for Simeon II on Bulgaria's political scene confronts all major political parties with some difficult choices.

The UDF, smarting from its election defeat, risks seeing its electoral support shrink even further. Two senior UDF leaders recently left the party to set up their own political parties.

Parvanov's victory was an indisputable boost to the Socialists' morale. Yet in the June parliamentary election, voters had relegated -- for the first time in the postcommunist period -- the Socialist Party to a third-rank position. Whether the Socialist Party will embark upon a path of reform toward a social-democratic image will depend greatly on Parvanov's successor at the helm, to be chosen in December.

MRF leader Dogan has long prided himself on having a decisive say in Bulgarian politics. What remains to be seen is whether the MRF will remain content with supporting Saxecoburggotski's future policy decisions or if it will, as the junior coalition partner, make increasing demands upon the National Movement for Simeon II.

It also is unclear how well the loosely allied individuals within the National Movement for Simeon II will hold together in the parliament in the months ahead -- particularly if public dissatisfaction with the government continues to grow.

Ultimately, that will be determined by the performance of the cabinet on the key election issue of last summer -- how to bring an end to economic hardship, poverty, and widespread corruption in the country.

(RFE/RL's Julia Guechakov contributed to this report.)