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


SOFIA, Bulgaria, Monday, June 18 — The former king's party was leading in Bulgarian elections early today, even though it appeared to fall short of its declared goal of a clear majority, dealing a heavy blow to the political forces that have governed Bulgaria since the collapse of Communism in 1989.

With 89 percent of votes counted, the movement that the former king, Simeon II, founded last April, had 43.4 percent of the vote, followed by the Union of Democratic Forces of Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, with 18.4 percent, and the former Communists, who ran as Socialists, with 17.4 percent, the national election commission announced.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the party of Bulgaria's Turkish minority, was expected to take about 7 percent of the vote.

The results mean the king's organization, the National Movement for Simeon II, with about 102 of the 240 seats in Parliament, will be given the first opportunity by President Petar Stoyanov to form a cabinet. It would replace the administration of Mr. Kostov, the incumbent who swept to power in 1997 after street protests over an economic crisis drove the Socialists from office.

Mr. Kostov stabilized Bulgaria's foundering economy and made economic changes that included privatizing nationalized industries and closing unprofitable businesses. He gained favor with the European Union and NATO, which Bulgaria wants to join, by standing by the West during the war in Kosovo, despite the conflict's negative effects on the Bulgarian economy. Bulgaria has remained stable, despite the spreading war in neighboring Macedonia.

But the movement inspired by Simeon, 64, rode to success on Mr. Kostov's eroded popularity, which was hurt by high unemployment, low living standards and corruption scandals involving close associates of the prime minister and senior cabinet members.

There are no substantive differences between Simeon's policies, as far as they are known, and Mr. Kostov's, though Simeon has said he would be more generous with public funds.

The results in the vote on Sunday not only punished Mr. Kostov, but also dealt a severe blow to the former Communists. They apparently have sunk to the position of a weak third force in Parliament, after succeeding in governing Bulgaria for most of the period from the 1989 collapse of Bulgaria's Soviet-style system to the 1997 crisis.

In April, Simeon became the first former monarch of an Eastern European country to enter active politics. He was forced into exile by the Communists in 1946, at the age 9, and had been living in Madrid and working as a business consultant. He pledged to Bulgarians that his movement would bring a rapid improvement in living standards and a war on the corruption that is widely viewed as punishing the average Bulgarian of little means.

Sunday was a remarkable day for Simeon, who was not a candidate for Parliament and is unlikely to play an active role in day-to-day politics or to become prime minister. After casting his vote near the former royal residence, Vrana, Simeon told Bulgarian television that it was the first time he had ever voted, since he declined to vote in Spanish elections while in Madrid.

Asked for whom he cast his vote, he replied: "For democracy, for everyone. This is our civic duty." At a late-night news conference, he said: "Bulgaria is no longer the same. We are embarking on a spiritual and economic renaissance." He sidestepped a question about a future role for himself in the government.

The last days of the campaign had been exceptionally bitter, as Simeon's critics accused him of seeking support by exploiting the average Bulgarian's exasperation with the hardships of economic reform.

They also accused him of trying to buy the vote, as on Friday, the last day of campaigning, when Simeon visited a Gypsy neighborhood in Sofia and distributed perfume and waffles to prospective voters. His defenders said giving gifts was custom among Gypsy leaders. Elsewhere in the country, Gypsy candidates gave out chickens, cheese and pastry to voters.

For Simeon, the main task now will be to find a candidate for prime minister and to form a cabinet. Mr. Kostov and his followers faced a deep divide over whether to join a broad-based coalition with Simeon's followers or to go into parliamentary opposition, but Simeon and his followers have always made it clear that they would welcome a broad coalition that included Mr. Kostov's party.

"There could be a coalition, there could be a wide coalition, there could be no coalition," Simeon said Sunday.

Stefan Sofianski, the mayor of Sofia who is an ally of Mr. Kostov, told Reuters on Sunday that a broad coalition was the "best option for Bulgaria." But Dimitar Abadzhiev, the deputy chairman of the executive council of Mr. Kostov's party, said a decision was premature.

"We are about to have an unstable Parliament," Mr. Abadzhiev said. "If it is true that this was a vote of punishment, the whole of Bulgaria will be punished."

In downtown Sofia, Stoyan Panayotov, 64, an electrical engineer, said he voted for Mr. Kostov. "We were just about at the bottom," he said, and Mr. Kostov's party "picked us up from the bottom."

But Fani Kartounova, 53, said "social policy was nonexistent" under Mr. Kostov's government. "Intellectuals are digging in garbage cans."

"Had he not come along," she said of Simeon, "many people would not have voted at all, including me."

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