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Business as Usual in Sofia

Bulgarians wait to see if their former king can deliver in his job as prime minister.
By Deyan Kiuranov

June's exotic elections have left Bulgaria in a precarious position. The country is temporarily without a government, as both main political parties have been outstripped at the polls by late-comer, former King Simeon II of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who himself has no governmental experience.


The ex-king's party, the National Movement for Simeon II, NMSS, has no working majority in parliament and has yet to finalise a coalition with the Turkish minority party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, MRF - an alliance supported by only 12 per cent of the population. The NMSS itself has no clear ideology or government programme and the ex-king, now plain Mr Sakskoburggotski, had to be arm-twisted into accepting the job as PM.


But appearances can be deceptive. The June elections were free and fair, if rather unusual, and the country is now returning to its version of business as usual.


The June 17 elections were the first since 1990 in which a governing party, the right-of-centre Union of Democratic Forces, UDF, completed a full four-year term. The out-going UDF prime minister, Ivan Kostov, governed the country with authority, undertaking unpopular market reforms. Despite excellent macroeconomic results - the country's GDP has grown at the rate of around 5 per cent for the last two years and this trend is expected to continue - lack of social programmes undermined his support.


An electoral showdown was expected between the UDF and the Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, the pro-NATO ex-communists. But three months before the elections the exiled King Simeon II announced the formation of the NMSS and swept to victory with 43 per cent of the vote. The UDF gathered only 18 per cent, the BSP 17 per cent. The only other party to pass the 4 per cent threshold for seats in parliament was the MRF, which won 7 per cent of the vote and now has 21 MPs.


The only real surprise in the end was the scale of King Simeon's victory. The NMSS tally virtually ruled out a coalition with the UDF, which could not accept the role of junior partner in government. Mr Sakskoburggotski hinted he did not wish to form a coalition with the BSP. But with only 120 MPs in the 240-seat parliament, this left only the MRF as potential partners if the ex-king was to form a working majority government.


The NMSS went public on July 17 saying that the MRF would probably be their sole coalition partner. An official announcement is expected on July 22. But the MRF has indicated there is dissent within its ranks over the offer on the table. Details have not been made public, but media reports claim the MRF has been offered one ministerial post, in charge of agriculture, and three deputy ministerial posts.


"It is not the number that's so important, but the department that counts," said MRF leader Ahmed Dogan. He said there is "some conflict" within the parliamentary party but added that he was confident the deal would be signed soon.


The would-be coalition partners have undertaken to present proposed ministers for approval by the National Assembly on July 24.


The coalition would leave the government short of the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional alterations and virtually rules out any changes related to the monarchy. Although Sakskoburggotski can probably rely on UDF and BSP support for some consensual legislation, no backing would be forthcoming for a pro-monarchy agenda. Even at the height of the ex-king's popularity ratings, no more than 15 per cent of Bulgarians supported the return of the monarchy - a figure which has remained constant over the past ten years.


Since the adoption of the constitution in 1991 everything to do with Bulgaria's democratic institutions has been carried out strictly by the book. Paradoxically, the return of the king signalled yet another victory for democratic procedure. Simeon had initially considered not taking a formal position but retaining a somewhat kingly remove from day-to-day. In the event, he has been forced to accept a role allocated by a republican democracy, becoming prime minister as the leader of the winning party. Democratic procedure appears to have won out over nostalgic pro-monarchy instincts.


Prime Minister Sakskoburggotski's policy path looks predictable enough. Externally his government will continue the pro-EU and pro-NATO policies of the Kostov government. Internally, they will try to alleviate the social and economic burden of reform while pushing ahead with changes set in train by the previous government.


At this stage expectations are for a mediocre performance at best. The former king hasn't lived in Bulgaria for 50 years, he has no personal experience of the country or its people. Most of his entourage are persons with no experience of government - including the PM himself.


His government will probably be slow to come up with a policy programme, and what they do produce may prove impossible to implement.


The enthusiasm surrounding the ex-king's acceptance of the premier-ship cannot replace basic know-how. To govern Bulgaria is easy; to govern it well is not. The new government will now be judged by performance and not promises.


Deyan Kiuranov is the director of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia.


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