REUTERS: BULGARIA'S EX-KING LEADS MOVEMENT TO POLL VICTORY

Politics | June 18, 2001, Monday // 00:00

June 17, 2001 07:28 PM ET

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria's ex-King Simeon II led his two-month-old political movement to a resounding general election victory, leaving main-line parties to bargain for a place in an offered coalition.

Prime Minister Ivan Kostov admitted that his UDF party had suffered `a heavy election defeat` in Sunday's vote, and hinted at stepping down as party leader.

A visibly elated Simeon told a news conference: `After today, Bulgaria is different.`

`Together, we are embarking on a path of economic and moral renovation. It will not be an easy one, there will be many obstacles, but we will not give up.`

At the age of 64, Simeon becomes the first ex-monarch to regain political power in a former East European communist state.

Aides said projections gave his National Movement for Simeon II 43 percent of the vote, similar to most exit polls. This would translate into 117 seats in the 240-member single chamber parliament. Further results could give him an absolute majority.

Official results for parties and coalitions are due within four days, and for individual seats in seven days.

Simeon was not running personally and he has not said how he sees his future role.

Nikolai Vassilev, head of the movement's economic team, said on Sunday Simeon was equally likely to become prime minister or to remain behind the scenes.

The tall, bald and bearded former king was exiled from Bulgaria at the age of nine -- three years after acceding to the throne -- after a rigged referendum abolished the monarchy in 1946.

CONSULTANCY IN MADRID

He ran a business consultancy in Madrid before entering politics in Bulgaria in April. He voted for the first time in his life to a hero's welcome in a Sofia suburb on Sunday.

Despite the victory, Simeon said he favored the formation of a broad coalition government. But he said it would be with those who shared his priorities.

These were speedy economic growth, a drive to join the European Union and NATO, and a resolute fight against corruption.

He did not name possible partners, saying talks would start after final election results came in.

Ahmed Dogan, leader of the MRF party drawn from Bulgaria's 10 percent ethnic Turkish minority, which finished a distant fourth, said he saw no problem in an alliance with Simeon as their two groups had similar goals.

An alliance with the MRF would give Simeon's movement a solid majority in the Balkan state of eight million people.

Dogan told Reuters he was also ready to work with the UDF in a future government `but without Kostov.`

A senior Simeon aide, Miroslav Sevlievski, said the UDF and the Socialist Party of ex-communists were running level on 18 percent each. Exit polls have the UDF-led coalition slightly over 20 percent, with the Socialists trailing.

Allegations of top-level corruption and plunging living standards, despite good macro-economic results, undermined the popularity of the UDF government.

`We have taken a lot of unpopular decisions and also made mistakes,` Kostov told a news conference. `We wanted the voter to pay a higher price than he was prepared to pay.`

SIMEON ACCUSED OF `WILD POPULISM`

Kostov has called the ex-king's socially oriented program `wild populism.` His camp waged a fierce anti-Simeon campaign but the king's movement has said it is nevertheless prepared to form a coalition with the UDF.

Pale and clearly devastated, Kostov hinted he may resign as UDF leader: `I assure you, 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 UDF.`

In the run-up to the vote, Kostov had dismissed the idea of a broad coalition, saying it would put all parties in power and leave the Bulgarian people in opposition. But his top aides appeared to be split on Sunday.

Popular Sofia mayor Stefan Sofianski told Reuters a broad coalition was `the best option for Bulgaria.`

Dimitar Abadzhiev, deputy chairman of the UDF executive council, said however it was `too early to decide.`

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