Ex-King's Charm Campaign Wins Bulgarian Voters


Former King Simeon II, riding a movement based on personal popularity, political ambiguity and public disaffection, won a major but ill-defined future political role Sunday in voting for a new Bulgarian parliament.

In the greatest political success by an ex-monarch or heir to the throne in any of the former Soviet bloc states, the National Movement Simeon II party was projected early today to win about half the seats in the 240-member National Assembly. Whether it would obtain a majority remained unclear, but the former king's handpicked candidates appeared to have won slightly more votes and seats than the combined total of his party's two major rivals.

Simeon himself did not run for parliament. Under Bulgarian law, however, he could still become prime minister, and he now can almost surely take that post if he wants to. But many analysts predict he will choose to remain without any official position, calling the shots from the background. That would make him a king and a kingmaker.

"After today's election, I think that Bulgaria is no longer the same," the bearded and balding Simeon, 64, said at a victory news conference. "I am convinced that today we have set off together along the road to . . . the revival of Bulgaria."

Party Attracts a Wide Range of Supporters

Simeon became king in 1943 at the age of 6 after the death of his father, Boris III. However, he was expelled from the country when a referendum rigged by the post-World War II Soviet-installed Communist government abolished the monarchy in 1946. He grew up in Spain and became a successful businessman there. Huge and rapturous crowds greeted him when he first revisited his homeland in 1996, but he plunged into politics just two months ago.

Drawing on an image of high morality and compassion, Simeon put together a movement that drew support from the unemployed, the rural poor and others who have suffered from market-oriented reforms. At the same time, he attracted people hopeful that he will improve the business environment and help attract more foreign capital. He has assembled an economic brain trust of young, Western-educated Bulgarian economists who have experience working abroad as investment bankers, brokers and analysts.

Many people here believe that Simeon would prefer being president to being prime minister, but he does not meet the residency requirement to run in December's election. He could get parliament to change the rules in time for him to run, but analysts say it is unlikely.

Supporters as well as critics think Simeon would like to see restoration of a constitutional role for the monarchy, but he has resolutely refused to discuss that issue.

"I don't think the income of our people or their welfare will improve by discussing 'monarchy' or 'republic' at this stage," Simeon said recently in a comment typical of his remarks on the subject.

Simeon said late Sunday that "despite the many hard words uttered during the election race . . . the National Movement Simeon II will strive toward a coalition government with political forces that share the main ideas in our program."

Those ideas include stable economic growth, stronger efforts to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and battling corruption, he said.

The ruling center-right Union of Democratic Forces could be a coalition partner of Simeon's. At least one and perhaps two smaller parties with compatible policies also won enough seats to provide control of parliament if his movement falls short of a majority on its own.

Based on results available early today, Simeon's movement received about 43% of the vote, which would give it at least 117 seats under electoral rules. The Union of Democratic Forces and the Coalition for Bulgaria, based mainly on the ex-Communist Socialist Party, each won about 18%, good for roughly 50 seats each.

"We have made a lot of unpopular decisions and also made mistakes," Prime Minister Ivan Kostov said at a news conference. "We wanted the voter to pay a higher price [in the country's economic reforms] than he was prepared to pay."

During the campaign, Kostov described Simeon's program as "wild populism."

Many voters who favored parties other than Simeon's, as well as many analysts, question whether his movement can fulfill all its promises, which include a quick rise in living standards.

"The social coalition backing him is a coalition of those who lost for the last 12 years of transition and reforms, the new poor and the new disappointed . . . who expect higher salaries now, higher pensions now, a better life now," said Ivan Kristev, director of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a Sofia-based think tank. "At the same time, the economic team of the movement is very much composed of young economists who spent part of their time out of the country working for investment banks, and they're coming with very orthodox macroeconomic policies. So the problem is, who's going to dominate?"

Subka Yovcheva, 53, who works as a financial officer in the Bulgarian army, said she "voted for His Majesty Simeon II" because "in the past few years, the situation is becoming tragic because of unemployment, low pensions and lack of money for education. For the future, and for the sake of our children, the savior seems to be the king."

A Lack of Specific Plans Troubles Some

But the ambiguity surrounding Simeon's plans, both for his own role and his policies, bothers many.

The former king is "a cat in a bag," said Dimiter Mechkov, 62, a physics professor at Sofia University, using a Bulgarian phrase that refers to accepting a pet kitten without taking a look at it. Mechkov said he would like to see the former king offer "a clear program, not the one we have now that is very contradictory. . . . And it's not clear what the form will be of his participation in political life."

Kristev, the think tank director, described Simeon as behaving in the campaign "like a beautiful glass in which you can put the wine you like. He didn't try to very much engage himself with very concrete policies. He has been allowing different experts to take different positions, and he never made clear what is his position."

Simeon's ambiguity not only helped unite an exceptionally broad coalition of supporters but also reflected his concept of how to be a king of all the people, Kristev said.

"He found himself a role as a king in a republic," Kristev said. "This is how he's behaving. Until now, he's succeeding, because a majority of people perceive him as a king."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World