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

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) Bulgarians voted in parliamentary elections Sunday that could bring a former monarch from ex-communist Europe back to the political stage for the first time.
After five decades in exile, former king Simeon II returned to Bulgaria early this year to cheering throngs. On Sunday, the 64-year-old did something he had never done before voted.

"I voted for democracy," Simeon, who was ousted by the communists and fled the country at age 9, said as he cast his ballot in a Sofia suburb. "We all have to foster it"

Initially hoping to run for president but barred by the courts because he has not lived in Bulgaria long enough, Simeon set up his own political party to run in the parliamentary race.

Riding a wave of antipathy toward the current political elite in the Balkan nation, Simeon has pledged to raise living standards, bring decency into public life and to fight corruption.

"I voted for the king because he is our last hope," said Dimitar Stefanov, 30, a coal miner in Pernik, a rust belt town 20 miles west of Sofia. "If he fails to get things right, emigration remains my only option."

Opinion polls showed the former king's party, National Movement Simeon II, leading other contenders by a wide margin, but it appeared likely to fall short of a majority in the 240-seat legislature.

By noon, some 20 percent of the nation's 6.5 million eligible voters had cast their ballots, the central electoral commission said. Initial projections were expected later Sunday and final official results Wednesday.

Visibly touched by the huge crowd of journalists and supporters that waited outside the polling station, Simeon said he has no desire to restore Bulgaria's monarchy.

He has refused to say whether he wants to be prime minister, and so far the courts have barred him from participating in the presidential election this fall.

Simeon acceded to the throne in 1943, at age 6, after the death of his father, Boris III. He reigned under regents until 1946, when the communists called a referendum that abolished the monarchy. The royal family went into exile, eventually settling in Spain.

Polls have shown strong support for Simeon's party in some of the country's poorest regions. In Pernik, the number of jobs at Stefanov's mine has been cut from 1,000 just a year ago to 150, and wages are low.

"We helped the current government take power four years ago, but it cheated us," said Tsvetan Borissov, 49, one of the thousands of miners who blocked roads in nationwide protests that forced an unpopular Socialist government to quit in 1997.

The more reform-oriented center-right Union of Democratic Forces won 57 percent of the vote in elections that year and leads a government that has tamed inflation and improved standing with foreign lenders. The economy grew 5.8 percent last year.

But the jobless rate 18 percent, the average monthly wage is $100, and about 70 percent of the population lives at or below the official poverty line. Simeon has promised job creation programs, pay increases and tax cuts to spur investment.

Fifty 50 parties and coalitions were running in the elections Sunday, but only Simeon's party and three others the Union of Democratic Forces, the Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which is made up mainly of ethnic Turks.

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