Sunday June 17 8:25 PM ET

Ex-King's Party Favored in Bulgaria

By VESELIN TOSHKOV, Associated Press Writer

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) - Bulgarian voters flocked Sunday to the party of a former king who was ousted as a child 55 years ago, setting the stage for the first return by a monarch to political power in ex-communist Europe.

With 30 percent of votes counted in parliamentary elections, former King Simeon II's party, the National Movement Simeon II, led with 46 percent, the electoral commission said. The governing Union of Democratic Forces of Prime Minister Ivan Kostov was second with 20 percent.

Kostov conceded defeat Sunday night, blaming his party's loss on the heavy burden of attempts to reform the impoverished economy.

``We demanded from the Bulgarian people to pay a higher price than the one they were ready to pay,'' a grim-faced Kostov told reporters.

Final official results are expected Wednesday, and it won't be known until after seats are assigned whether Simeon's National Movement will need a coalition partner to govern.

Simeon leads his political movement but hasn't said if he is interested in becoming prime minister. He does, however, deny any desire to restore the monarchy.

At a news conference late Sunday, Simeon said that he is ready to offer a coalition to ``all parties who share our program.''

``I voted for democracy ... we all have to foster it,'' the ex-monarch said as he cast his ballot in Sofia's Gorublyane suburb.

He said his priorities were stable economic growth, Bulgaria's speedy admission into the European Union and NATO, and responsible government according to European standards.

According to the preliminary results, the Socialist Party came in third, with 16 percent; followed by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, composed mainly of ethnic Turks, which had 4.5 percent; and 4 percent to a new coalition of two center-right parties, Gergyovden-VMRO. A total of 50 parties and coalitions ran in the election. Turnout was about 66 percent.

After five decades in exile in Spain, Simeon returned to Bulgaria early this year to cheering throngs.

Initially hoping to run for president but barred by the courts because he has not lived in Bulgaria long enough, Simeon set up his own party to run in the parliamentary race.

Riding a wave of antipathy toward the current political elite in the Balkan nation, Simeon has pledged to raise living standards, and bring decency into public life.

``I voted for the king because he is our last hope,'' said Dimitar Stefanov, 30, a coal miner in Pernik, a rust-belt town 20 miles west of Sofia. ``If he fails to get things right, emigration remains my only option.''

Simeon acceded to the throne in 1943, at age 6, after the death of his father, Boris III. He reigned under regents until 1946, when the communists called a referendum that abolished the monarchy. The royal family went into exile, eventually settling in Spain.

Polls have shown strong support for Simeon's party in some of the country's poorest regions. In Pernik, the number of jobs at Stefanov's mine has been cut from 1,000 just a year ago to 150, and wages are low.

``We helped the current government take power four years ago, but it cheated us,'' said Tsvetan Borisov, 49, one of the thousands of miners who blocked roads in nationwide protests that forced an unpopular Socialist government to quit in 1997.

The more reform-oriented center-right Union of Democratic Forces won 57 percent of the vote in elections that year and leads a government that has tamed inflation and improved standing with foreign lenders. The economy grew 5.8 percent last year.

But the jobless rate is 18 percent, the average monthly wage is $100, and about 70 percent of the population lives at or below the official poverty line.

 

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