Bulgaria's political fairy tale - happily ever after?

Bulgaria's former king Simeon II is expected to win Sunday's elections.

It sounds like a fairy tale. A 9-year old King is dethroned by a foreign army and grows up in exile, dreaming of his homeland and throne. More than 50 years later, he returns to his demoralized country, a shining figure of hope, ridding the land of thieves and scoundrels. Then, everyone lives happily ever after.

The scene is not from the imagination of Disney screenwriters; it's the real-life scenario opinion polls say the largest group of Bulgarians will favor when they vote for Parliament on Sunday.

Polls give Simeon Saxe-Coburgotski, or Tsar Simeon II of the Bulgarians, nearly 40 percent of the vote -more than the next two biggest parties combined -even as detractors say the "Good King" has no idea how to solve the myriad problems of a country he has not lived in since 1946.

Also, he has provided few details on how he would run the country. He does not even appear on his party's list of candidates, though that would not bar him from becoming prime minister. He has said that his three main goals are to eliminate corruption and political partisanship, and to implement an economic policy that will "change the lives of Bulgarians within 800 days."

He promises to increase pensions, along with wages for teachers, police, and others, and to give interest-free loans to small-business owners. Further details, he says, must wait until "after election day." Despite such ambiguity - or perhaps because of it - he is Bulgaria's most popular political figure.

The first ex-monarch in Eastern Europe to successfully enter politics in his native land, Simeon has transformed the political landscape and energized the populace.

In this Tennessee-sized country of 8 million, corruption is perceived as ubiquitous, and unemployment stands at 18 percent. Wages, for those who have jobs, average about $100 a month.

Ognyan Minchev, executive director of the Institute for Regional and International Studies, says Simeon benefits from keeping his mouth shut, as his appeal is largely emotional. "If you live today in Bulgaria with a $100 monthly salary, you can't be an entirely reasonable and pragmatic person," he says.

But political opponents and other critics call Simeon's pledges populist and economically unfeasible, adding that they put at risk efforts to join NATO and the European Union.

In an address on June 7, President Petar Stoyanov warned: "When political illusions of today turn out to be without foundation tomorrow, we will all have to pay dearly for their collapse."

Nevertheless, a recent opinion poll found 37 percent support for the ex-monarch's National Movement for Simeon II (NMSII) -a drop from 53 percent support when the party was founded in April -but still more than the next two largest parties combined. The poll found 18 percent support for the ruling Union of Democratic Forces Party (UDF) UDF, and 16 percent for the Socialists (BSP).

Simeon has credibility mainly because he has not lived in the country for 50 years. In 1946 at age 9, he was forced to leave Bulgaria as Communist rule swept away Eastern Europe's monarchs. While in exile in Spain, he became a successful businessman. He returned for his first visit in 1996.

"We are sick and tired of being robbed and lied to," says supporter Nadezhda Georgiev, standing outside Simeon's office in central Sofia. "We know he won't steal," she reasons, because he is already wealthy.

"People are not only interested in bread and good stories," says Purvoleta Ivanova, another supporter. "They want security, goodness, and morality, and for their children to succeed in their own country. He has a big team of patriotic and highly educated professionals who believe in this attitude." Many Bulgarian emigrants returned to help with the campaign and are NMSII candidates for parliament.

Political opponents fear Simeon could jeopardize the present government's hard-won achievements of the past four years: economic reform, political stability, close relations with NATO and the European Union -Bulgaria began membership talks two years ago.

"We paid the price for doing the right thing," says Svetoslav Malinov, head of Political Analyses and Strategies for the ruling UDF.

Mr. Malinov says Simeon is reaping the benefits after his party tackled the hard tasks of implementing fiscal discipline, privatization, stabilizing the currency, and closing unprofitable factories. "Now the country is stable. There has been economic growth for three years, low inflation.... If he participates in government, he takes minimal risks.

Simeon -a second cousin to Britain's Queen Elizabeth II -is the first East European ex-monarch likely to return to power in his homeland. King Michael of Romania and King Leka of Albania both stand on shaky ground in their homelands.

Bulgarians, meanwhile, display a bit of their own ambivalence: While most support Simeon's political party, opinion polls show less than 15 percent favor a return to the monarchy.

"I have no ambitions to reinstitute the monarchy," Simeon announced Wednesday. Previously, he had always asserted his claim to the throne. "My only ambition is for the people in this country to live well and in a democracy."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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