Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Simeon Set for Poll Victory

Former king threatens to romp home in Bulgarian general election
By Anthony Georgieff

Fears are growing that the landslide victory predicted for ex-king Simeon in the general election on Sunday could threaten both inter-ethnic relations and Bulgaria's chances for early membership of the EU and NATO.

Analysts have begun mapping out the strategies the ruling United Democratic Forces, UDF, could use to stop Simeon II and his populist movement from freezing government plans to integrate Bulgaria more closely with the EU zone.

The political balance of power has radically changed since April,

when the one-time monarch formed the National Movement for King Simeon II, SNM, and joined the electoral race.

Exiled from Bulgaria as a child after a rigged referendum abolished the

monarchy in 1946, the Madrid-based businessman is the first former king in

post-communist eastern Europe to enter politics in his homeland.

The SNM has seen its opinion poll rating soar to 35 per cent. Analysts say Simeon II - as he styles himself on the campaign trail - is not only attracting undecided voters, but large chunks of the core constituencies of the ruling UDF and the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP.

Support for the UDF, a centre-right alliance that pulled the country out of a severe economic crisis four years ago, has crumbled to around 15 per cent. The BSP is expected to take just 10 per cent of the vote.

Analysts say voters will cast their ballots for Simeon out of sentimentality, rather than sound political reasoning. Few care to predict what the next national assembly will look like, but most predict a period of political turbulence, lasting anything from four months to two years.

The meteoric rise of the SNM has hurt the UDF and the BSP, but the damage it could inflict on Bulgaria's smaller parties is more alarming. These include the Bulgarian Euro-Left and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, which is in coalition with the St George's Day Movement. But the most crucial of them all is the ethnic-Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms, led by Ahmed Dogan.

Opinion polls give none of them much chance of winning the minimum 4 per cent of the vote required to qualify for a place in parliament. Analysts fear that the failure of the Turkish minority to win any seats at all could imperil Bulgaria's fragile ethnic peace, and contribute to further instability in the Balkans. Turks make up 10 per cent of Bulgaria's total population and, in many areas, they form the majority.

The collapse of support for the government of Prime Minister Ivan Kostov was mainly due to its failure to improve living standards. This has cast major

economic and foreign policy accomplishments into the shade.

The establishment of a currency board in 1997 to peg the Bulgarian lev to the German mark brought unprecedented financial stability and single-digit

inflation. Sofia was subsequently able to convince Brussels it was a serious

candidate for EU membership and negotiations ensued, with some chapters

already completed.

Sofia was also a staunch supporter of NATO during the Kosovo War in 1999, going on to sign an agreement that made it the only non-member state in the region to allow NATO troops to be stationed on its territory.

More important for ordinary Bulgarians, the Kostov government persuaded the signatory states of the Schengen Convention to allow its nationals to travel freely in the West without visas - something that Romania, signally, failed to achieve.

But these milestones have failed to win over the majority of Bulgarians, who are more concerned with the task of survival. Salaries in this country of 8 million people average $100 a month.

Plagued by corruption, the UDF further alienated voters by allowing prominent party members to live in luxury while ordinary citizens barely subsisted. Yordan Tsonev, former chairman of the parliamentary budget committee, and Khristo Biserov, former chief secretary of the UDF, were both forced to resign over allegations of graft.

The national carrier, Balkan Airlines, went into receivership in February, following its privatisation two years ago. Though a number of senior officials allegedly received large kickbacks in the deal, no one has yet been prosecuted.

What one observer called the "climate of impunity" proved the final straw for the Bulgarian voter - one that Simeon has shrewdly exploited. Without disclosing exactly how he plans to provide for the reduced taxes, increased pensions and child allowances, and improvements to education that he promised voters on 6 June, the former monarch told Bulgarians what they had longed to hear for years: he would introduce "a new morality" in politics.

His support faltered when the list of SNM candidates was released.

While including a number of popular personalities - TV stars, a fashion

model, an actor and a circus magician - it also featured a collection of

faces with mediocre - not to say, suspect - pasts.

Among the hand-picked teachers and provincial lawyers were individuals

connected to the country's powerful, but shady, economic groupings. An increasing number of Bulgarians are beginning to wonder how such a motley assortment will cohere as a party after the election.

Simeon II has said he will not run for parliament, a decision some interpret

as an unwillingness to swear allegiance to the republican constitution.

While he claims that restoring the monarchy is not "a priority" at present,

opponents suggest that may well be his goal in the long run.

There are two theories as to what what the next national assembly will look like after election day. According to one, Simeon will win by a large margin, but be unable to hold his disparate MPs together. The SNM will then fall apart, prompting early elections.

According to the second, the SNM could win by only a few percentage points. In that case, the Kostov government could use allegations of fraud to declare the election invalid.

With a presidential election due in the autumn, this second view is

not entirely far-fetched. The UDF could cite the unrest in Macedonia as a

threat to national security and call a second general election, to be held

concurrently with the presidential ballot.

By that time, it could have good reason to hope that support for the former

king will have waned. And it will be back to business as usual.

Anthony Georgieff is an IWPR contributor

More IWPR's Global Voices