It is the stuff of fairy tales. Deposed from his throne as a nine-year-old and sent into a life of exile, Simeon II, the last King of Bulgaria, has taken the country by storm since entering politics two months ago.
On the campaign trail, he has been mobbed by ecstatic crowds. Preliminary results yesterday indicated that his party, the National Movement for Simeon II, would sweep aside the two parties that have dominated Bulgaria since the fall of Communism, and win with about 46 per cent support.
Last night Prime Minister Ivan Kostov conceded defeat and the former king was celebrating. "Together, we are embarking on a path of economic and moral renovation," he said.But behind the fairy tale lies a grimmer truth that the vote for the former king is a protest vote from Bulgarians who say they are tired of living in grinding poverty, forgotten on the fringes of Europe.
Some Bulgarians have started carrying pictures of the king. Venko Christou wears a pin badge of the royal crest, a lion emblazoned on the Bulgarian flag. He voted for the king's party but says he is not interested in restoring the monarchy.
"We don't know what the king will do, but we'll still vote for him, because it will break up the existing system of rule," says Mr Christou, who lost his job, as a builder, two weeks ago.
He was sitting in a café with six other men, only one of whom had a job. Unemployment is a huge problem in Bulgaria. The country is littered with disused factories. Some have been sold to Western firms that have slashed their huge, Communist-era workforces. At one town in the north, Targovishte, unemployment is 90 per cent. The town is ringed with closed factories.
Across the country as whole, Western diplomats believe, the unemployment figure is about 60 per cent. The average monthly wage is £105.
Krustyo Raichev, sitting with Mr Christou, grows food for his family in the fields outside Kazichane, the old factory town where they live. He owns one cow. Another man at the table has five sheep. They only produce enough to live off, not to sell. The factories have closed and the people of Kazichane have become subsistence farmers.
It is among the poor that the king's support lies. In the cities, the people cannot even farm. "We try to live decent lives, but it is hard," says Kamelia Ivaneva, among the dilapidated concrete apartment blocks in Sofia's suburbs. Here, you can buy a new (but stolen) mobile phone for a quarter of its price in the shops. "A lot of people turn to crime," says Ms Ivaneva, though she adds that her family hasn't. She and her husband support their two children on state benefit of £17 a month. "We don't live, we just survive from day to day," she says.
Another woman says: "I don't even like the king as a person. But I'm still voting for him, because he's different."
Two parties the former Communists and their old liberal opponents have alternated in power in Bulgaria since Communism fell in 1989 without so much as a single street protest.
The former Communists presided over a disastrous financial crisis in 1996. Since then, the liberal government of Ivan Kostov has had to push through unpopular austerity measures insisted upon by the International Monetary Fund. Corruption is rife, and one of the king's biggest campaign promises is to root it out.
The pattern of protest votes for non-political figures is becoming familiar across this poverty-stricken corner of Europe. In Romania last year, a poet who promised to lock up gypsies in ghettos and rule with a machine-gun almost won presidential elections. In Moldova, unreformed Communists came to power earlier this year, and are cosying up to Russia.
Ivan Krustev, Bulgaria's leading political analyst, says: "We're lucky that our protest vote is for the king. The problem is, who is the next protest vote for, when the king doesn't deliver?"
To add to its problems, Bulgaria may soon have to cope with refugees from a civil war just across the border in Macedonia. Bulgarians regard Macedonians as their ethnic kin. The current government favoured involvement in Macedonia. The former king is known to be keen to stay out of it.
In general, though, the king's policies are vague. "Wait and see" and "Anything is possible in politics" have been his refrains during the campaign.
"The problem is: is he a king or a democratic politician?" Mr Krustev asks. "He's not saying, 'I promise to do this', making a contract with the people. He's saying, 'Trust me because I'm the king'."
The National Movement for Simeon II may contain well-qualified lawyers and economists, but it has campaigned on the king's name alone. Simeon has promised prosperity within 800 days, but economists say his financial programme is unrealistic. Drawn up by a team of Bulgarian expat bankers from the City of London, it promises zero-rate corporate tax to attract foreign investment, and lower personal income tax but also a balanced budget.
The immediate question is: what next for the king? Will he become prime minister, or try to overturn a constitutional court ruling barring him from running for president? Or will he try what the constitution makes extremely difficult, to regain his throne as monarch?Reuse content