Bulgarians set to vote for their ousted king as prime minister

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The Independent Online

The Bulgarians have had enough. Ever since the collapse of Communism in 1989, they have zigzagged between governments formed by the former Communists ­ now known as Socialists ­ and the anti-Communist United Democratic Front (UDF). Yet neither have brought prosperity.

In tomorrow's elections, Bulgarians look set to vote for a quite new party ­ a party led by a king. Simeon Borisov Saxe-Coburgotski may sound like the name of a character in a manic Monty Python sketch, but he is far from manic.

Czar Simeon II, the exiled King of Bulgaria who turns 64 today, is a balding, besuited businessman with a neat grey beard who has lived in Spain for decades. After the election he looks set to become the Prime Minister of Bulgaria. Hewas crowned the King aged just six in 1943. However, he was thrown out by the Communists only three years later.

Royalty has enjoyed a good run for its money in eastern Europe in recent years. Admittedly, the would-be returnees are usually keen to distance themselves from the high and low-jinks of British royals. Instead, King Juan Carlos of Spain, who played a key role in the restoration of Spanish democracy, is cited as the royal role model. Would-be monarchs have showed up in Albania, Romania and Serbia.

Despite some occasional enthusiasm, the attempts to become crowned heads of state once more have been notably unsuccessful: King Leka of Albania lost a referendum on restoring the monarchy, then staged a failed coup before fleeing home to South Africa. Mr Saxe-Coburgotski, who was first able to return to Bulgaria in 1996, has played a cannier game. He insists that he has no desire to become king: "I am not a monarch on active duty, I am a Bulgarian citizen free to do whatever I want."

Mr Saxe-Coburgotski's party was created only two months ago. Already it has eclipsed both the Socialists and the UDF. Polls suggest that the National Movement for him has around 40 per cent support, more than twice as much as the UDF or the Socialists.

It is unclear whether he has a convincing recipe for bringing the economic stability that Bulgaria desperately needs. Inflation is down from the 1,000 per cent mark that it reached in 1997, but incomes remain desperately low ­ averaging around £70 a month. Some of the most successful governments in post-Communist eastern Europe have been those that promised most pain and least gain ­ and could thus not be accused of failing to deliver.

Mr Saxe-Coburgotski, in contrast, promises that in 800 days, all will be well. He suggests that the first year is for "damage control or assessment", the second is to "start building and put in place the things which will change the trend", and the third year sees "an opportunity for dividends".

Mr Saxe-Coburgotski's strongest suit is the fact that he presents himself with almost-diffidence. Officially, he has not even declared himself as the would-be Prime Minister, saying that it would be "pompous or presumptuous" for him to do so. Some believe that he might seek to replace President Petar Stoyanov after the presidential elections in the autumn.

Part of the Saxe-appeal is simply the fact that the other parties are so unloved and distrusted. Some 9 out of 10 of voters think that the UDF is corrupt. The Socialists have also lost any credit that they might once have enjoyed. This is, in short, a classic protest vote.

It remains unclear whether Mr Saxe-Coburgotski and his National Movement will be able to do something substantial to revive the moribund Bulgarian economy, thus helping to bring it closer to the still distant dream of joining the European Union. His advisers include a number of sharp-suited Bulgarian expatriates, with impressive track records at companies like Merrill Lynch and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Bulgaria's former Czar and future who-knows-what may not have all the answers. But at least, many of the eight million Bulgarians reckon, he can hardly be worse than what came before.