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Opposition Partisans Cry Foul in Bulgaria : East Europe: 100,000 protest in Sofia. But observers praise the fairness of the apparent Communist victory.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Communism’s apparent triumph in Bulgaria drew praise Monday from European observers as a true test of the will of the electorate, but masses of disappointed opposition supporters took to the streets of Sofia to cry foul.

About 100,000 protesters converged on the National Palace of Culture, where the vote monitoring took place, to shout accusations of fraud and declare victory for the 16-party Union of Democratic Forces.

Chants of “Socialist Mafia!” and “We won’t work for the Reds!” echoed through the central streets of the capital as the demonstrators marched a mile through the city center at sunset, hissing and whistling as they passed the red star-topped Communist Party headquarters en route to the National Assembly.

Police were out in force but clearly under orders to avoid confrontation as the burgeoning mob moved through barricades unhindered, blocking major thoroughfares and halting tram traffic.

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The ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party won about 48% of Sunday’s vote, compared to 35% for the opposition alliance, according to three independent monitoring agencies that reflected nearly identical results.

No official vote totals had been released by Monday night, primarily due to time-consuming inquiries into more than 200 allegations of voting irregularities registered by the opposition.

However, Zhelyu Zhelev, head of the Union of Democratic Forces, told reporters that he did not believe the opposition would challenge the election’s overall validity.

“In the worst case, we shall want new elections where there have been real flagrant violations,” he said.

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While the anti-Communist forces got some support from American diplomats and observers who had openly favored the opposition, European monitors declared the first multi-party ballot in Bulgaria in 58 years to be fair.

“The results, which will be published soon, will reflect the will of the people,” Geoffrey Tordoff, leader of a British observer delegation, told reporters.

The British peer praised the government’s system of safeguards against fraud, contending, “If I wanted to fix an election, it would be easier to do it in England than in Bulgaria.”

Observers said Sunday’s vote took place in a surprisingly tranquil and open atmosphere after a bitterly fought campaign. There were no reports of violence, and the irregularities claimed by the opposition were mostly procedural flaws that foreign monitors dismissed as minor.

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“If the opposition denounces the results as manipulated, it doesn’t fit in with what we’ve seen,” said Miguel Martinez, a member of a delegation from the Council of Europe. “It has been a peaceful political competition in a country without such political traditions.”

Another West European observer rejected the opposition claims as “sour grapes.”

A U.S.-led team from the national Democratic and Republican Institutes for International Affairs in Washington issued a statement criticizing what it referred to as “psychological” pressures on Bulgarian voters.

“The legacy of 45 years of totalitarian rule cannot be forgotten in a few months, and in Bulgaria it has not been,” U.S. Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) said in reading a preliminary analysis of the election.

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That report alluded to campaign threats that voters could lose their jobs or pensions if the opposition won, scare tactics employed by Socialists in other East European states that were disregarded by voters as groundless rhetoric.

U.S. diplomats had aided and advised opposition forces in the last weeks of the campaign, and some of the independent monitors made no secret of their dismay over the results that favored the Socialists.

“Off the record, I have real problems with this,” said one American observer when asked about the U.S. government’s visible backing of the anti-Communist forces. Asked if the team’s report would have been as critical had the opposition won, he replied, “That’s a good question.”

The report was markedly more detailed and critical than one issued by the same organization after the vote in Romania, where the ruling National Salvation Front monopolized the media, was directly tied to physical attacks on rival candidates and refused to agree to foreign calls for probes into the widespread instances of ballot box-stuffing and intimidation.

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Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin said it was not the team’s intention to suggest that the Bulgarian vote should be invalidated.

Iceland Prime Minister Steingrimur Hermannsson appeared to put some distance between himself and his U.S. colleagues in saying that he thought “fear is too strong a word” to describe the political atmosphere criticized by the team.

Bulgaria emerged from the vote as the only nation to return the reformed Communists to power after an open and relatively well-organized campaign. Voters in the capital took up the opposition’s slogan that “45 years is enough,” but rural and elderly voters chose the party they were familiar with over a plunge into the unknown.

“There are 2 million pensioners in the country, and most of them voted for the Socialists because they were afraid,” said Marion Bogoyev, a 25-year-old student waving the opposition’s signature blue flag at the Monday night protest. “This outcome is a terrible shame on our nation.”

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A question remains whether the Socialists will be able to put together a ruling coalition. If they fail to capture at least half of the 400 parliamentary seats to be decided by the two-stage election that concludes next Sunday, they will need the cooperation of one of the three other parties that won representation--the Union of Democratic Forces, the Agrarian Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedom, which represents the interests of Bulgaria’s 1.5-million Turkish minority.

The Socialists have called throughout the campaign for coalition rule to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy, but Democratic Forces leader Zhelev has rejected cooperation with those the opposition blames for Bulgaria’s economic disaster.

Bulgaria suffers an $11-billion foreign debt and falling industrial output that has created food and consumer goods shortages.

The Socialists favor introducing economic change gradually.

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Those protesting the first-round outcome accused the Socialists of intimidating rural voters. Earlier, in a day marked by roving rallies, they called for a general strike.


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