Bulgarian Socialists Winning Vote but Future Unclear New_York_Times - 2005/6/25
Bulgaria's Socialists claimed victory over the ruling centrists in Saturday elections but exit polls suggested they face a tough road in forming a government to usher the Balkan country into the European Union in 2007.

Any protracted power wrangling between parties could delay key reforms needed to secure EU entry and unsettle investors betting on the Balkan country's euro zone covergence.

Exit polls put Socialist backing at about 31 percent, versus 20 percent for ex-king Simeon Saxe-Coburg's National Movement for Simeon II (NMS). Earlier opinion polls had given the Socialists 40 percent.

Analysts said an unexpectedly strong showing by a radical nationalist group, Attack, may have eroded the Socialist vote.

``We have won the elections,'' said Socialist deputy leader Rumen Petkov. ``But the results are not satisfactory.''

The Socialists and their preferred ruling partners, the mostly ethnic-Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), would be around six seats short of a majority in the 240-seat parliament and would need support from more players.

``The results from the exit polls show that a stable government is hardly likely,'' said Ognian Shentov, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy. ``It will be very difficult for the Socialists to make a coalition with the MRF, but surprisingly, a broad coalition... is now possible.''

Socialist leader Sergei Stanishev offered cooperation to parties to make sure Bulgaria forms a strong government.

``We are ready to start talks with all democratic powers,'' he told a news conference.

The next government must complete a mountain of difficult reforms under increased scrutiny from Brussels as skepticism over further EU expansion grows after recent French and Dutch rejections of the bloc's constitution. Failure to press the changes quickly could delay EU entry by a year.

Although investors have praised Saxe-Coburg's government as the best since the fall of communism, public discontent over poverty and crime forced the only ex-monarch to second place.


Analysts say the surprise emergence of the nationalist Attack party, who exit polls suggested had won up to 8 percent and crossed the threshold to parliament, may have undermined the Socialists.

``The result for Attack is a surprise and has eroded support for the Socialists,'' said Kancho Stoichev, an analyst with Gallup.

The Socialists ruled out any cooperation with Attack but not a coalition including the ruling centrists.

Saxe-Coburg said he would not join a group he does not lead but his party may find another role for him, such as the presidency, or some of his deputies may defect.

One party was quick to make its intentions clear.

``A left-center coalition is more likely,'' MRF leader Ahmed Dogan said, apparently throwing his support behind the leftists.

The Socialists have been eager to show they have changed since they were ousted in 1997 after plunging the country into economic disaster. But despite vowing economic prudence and reforms crucial for EU accession -- such as revamping a lumbering judiciary -- the Socialists' plans for more social spending are a bigger risk for the economy, analysts say.

Banished in 1947 at the age of nine by the communists, the former boy-king returned to win a landslide election victory in 2001. He led Bulgaria into NATO and to the threshold of the EU, boosted economic growth to 6 percent and cut unemployment.

Despite his achievements, failure to deliver on brash 2001 pledges to make all Bulgarians wealthy in 800 days has angered voters. Bulgaria's 2004 per capita GDP of 2,498 euros makes it second only to Turkey as the poorest EU member or candidate.

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