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Holdout Bulgaria Expected to Vote for Communism

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bringing up the rear in Eastern Europe’s march for democracy, Bulgarians vote today in the only contest in which Communists defended the virtue of being a “Red.”

Despite an 11th-hour surge in support for the opposition Union of Democratic Forces, Bulgaria appeared poised to become the first nation to vote for communism when given another choice.

The Balkan state of 9 million remains closely allied to the Soviet Union, and with staggering debts and widespread food shortages, Bulgarians seem little inclined toward radical change that could worsen their lot.

Opinion polls of debatable reliability projected up to 50% of the vote for the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party, which set off a ripple of social reform last November when a palace coup ousted hard-liner Todor Zhivkov.

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Bulgarians’ loyalty to communism is puzzling at a time when the ideology has been vehemently rejected elsewhere in Eastern Europe and battered at home by an opposition campaign focused on the sins of the ruling party’s past.

The UDF dredged up details of atrocities at labor camps and repressions against Bulgaria’s 1.5 million Turks. But instead of running from association with the tarnished party, the 1 million Communists have circled the wagons to prevent an opposition victory and retaliatory backlash. Membership grew by 24,000 in the past two months.

Bulgarians have been frightened by the resurrected horrors and the implications of collective guilt, said Kalin Mitrev, a Foreign Ministry official and campaign organizer.

One in five Bulgarian adults is a member of the party founded in the last century.

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“In Bulgaria, the Communist Party is not a Russian import,” said Mitrev. “We have natural roots in the masses. That is the difference between us and the rest of Eastern Europe.”

Communists fared badly in free elections in East Germany and Hungary and were making a weak showing in Czechoslovakia, where a vote began Friday. Romania’s ex-Communists banded together with dissidents in the National Salvation Front, contending that they had abandoned their old ideology.

In Bulgaria, the Communists and the UDF differ little in their approaches to reforming the economy, which has left voters feeling that their choice is between the devil they know and the one they don’t.

While the Communists have consistently polled ahead of the UDF, the opposition share has climbed in recent weeks from 20% to as much as 40%, according to public opinion polls by Bulgarian and foreign institutes.

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Sofia shop windows and fences are covered with colorful posters touting the UDF rally cry of “45 years is enough--it’s our turn.” Opposition supporters in battered compacts cruised the central streets on the eve of the election, honking horns, fluttering banners and singing the praises of being “Blue,” the UDF’s signature color. The Communists, proudly traditional, campaigned for votes for the “Reds.”

UDF leader Zhelyu Zhelev displayed a recently acquired confidence when he said during a televised debate Friday night that his 16-party alliance would seek a coalition with other parties, but would not share power with the Communists.

“We will not enter into a coalition with the BSP because they have not changed fundamentally,” Zhelev said.

Communist leader Alexander Lilov repeated that “we hold out a hand to all political parties.”

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The two-stage election that concludes June 17 will seat a 400-member Parliament charged with drafting a new constitution within 18 months. If either major party wins 50% or more of the mandates, it will earn the right to seat a government.

With strong potential for a split vote, coalition talks could cast two smaller parties into the role of kingmakers.

The Agrarian Party, running a distant third among 40 parties, is expected to get about 15% of the vote. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms supported by the Turkish minority has been forecast to poll about 5%.

“We have to live after the election. If anyone thinks his party can rule without the opposition, this is a mistake,” said Valentin Radomirsky, another Communist diplomat.

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Chain-smoking in nervous excitement, Radomirsky rejected opposition charges that the Communists monopolized resources and intimidated rivals.

Zhelev stirred up international concern last week when he reported that four opposition activists had died in recent days under mysterious circumstances. He later said, however, that it was not clear whether the secret police or Communist officials were involved.

The U.S. Embassy in Sofia issued a statement expressing concern that Bulgaria’s first multi-party ballot in 44 years might be tainted by foul play and Communist control of the media and state finances.

While the Communists insist that they have provided their opponents with everything needed for a fair fight, the campaigns have been waged at visibly differing levels of affluence.

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Inside the imposing stone monolith that houses the BSP, campaign messages are beamed through a 16-screen video display and a battery of new computers. About 12,000 visitors stop by each day to slurp sugary orange soda, collect shiny buttons and paper flags or to watch the free foreign movies shown each night.

A few blocks away, the UDF operates out of a down-at-the-heels office building that foreign businessmen abandoned in April. Visitors seeking campaign literature are cordoned off by string-and-lumber barriers in the poorly lighted entryway. Those who need to meet with campaign organizers are usually forced to scale seven flights of shabbily carpeted stairs because the sole elevator is hopelessly overwhelmed.

The UDF appears to have put more of its resources into placards and banners, as the capital is awash in a sea of “Blue” propaganda. The message appeared to be getting through, as UDF supporters far outnumbered Communist demonstrators at rival rallies on the eve of the election.

A cheering crowd of 500,000 filled Sofia’s six-lane Lenin Boulevard for three miles Thursday night.

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“The rally in Sofia was the vote of the Bulgarian capital. It was the voice of the people. There is no doubt that we will win the election,” Zhelev predicted.

The Communists concede that the UDF may outpoll them in the capital of 1.2 million but said that their voter base is solid in the countryside.


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