Bulgarian king-turned-PM feels sting of democracy Reuters - 2005/6/16
The boy-king who returned to rule Bulgaria after 50 years of communist exile is discovering blue blood and democracy may not be a recipe for political longevity.
Simeon Saxe-Coburg, Europe's only ex-monarch to be elected prime minister, should be riding high in the polls towards June 25 elections on a policy record that observers say is Bulgaria's most successful since the fall of Soviet-backed communism.
Instead he is fighting for political survival, because many of his critics and a huge swathe of voters see him as a distant figure who has missed a string of opportunities to wipe out graft and break the grip of poverty afflicting half the country.
"He was elected because the public believed it was possible to have real change," said Krassen Stanchev, head of Sofia's Institute for Market Economics. "But he behaved like a king. He didn't interfere in day-to-day problems in the government. He missed opportunities and didn't deliver, and now he is losing."
Polls show popularity for Saxe-Coburg's National Movement for Simeon II (NMS) party at 15 percent. That's a far cry from the 43 percent share of votes it took when it won the 2001 elections and trails well behind the Socialists at 30 percent.
Remembered as the well-behaved six-year-old who scaled the throne after his father died under suspicions of poisoning, Simeon II was cast out by the communists in 1947 and returned only in 2001 to a landslide election victory. Initial elation was short-lived, as his hastily thrown together party of managers and celebrities -- including a model, an actor, and even a magician -- choked on a promise to radically boost the living standards of the Balkan country's 8 million people within 800 days and stamp out corruption.
The prime minister's budget-balancing, debt-slashing cabinet has led Bulgaria into NATO, overseen difficult reforms needed to achieve EU entry, and presided over booming economic growth. But analysts say voters feel many of those gains were a logical result of a path laid down by the government which preceded the former king's and that he has been slow to translate them into a better life for the average Bulgarian. Saxe-Coburg's public persona has also hurt him in the polls and makes it easy for detractors to depict him as aloof.
Though he is fluent in six languages, the ex-king often blushes when speaking in public. He avoids media interviews on government policy, refuses to take part in pre-election debates, discourages public scrutiny of his policies and often appears bewildered by criticism. "I sometimes just wonder why people insult me personally," he said recently. "What have I done to those people? How am I bothering them? Have I said something to deserve it?"
Saxe-Coburg has shown a public reluctance to seek anything but the highest of offices and his re-election bid does not include running for a parliamentary seat.
"His style worked perfectly when he was considered a king and first came into office," said Ognian Shentov, head of the Centre for the Study of Democracy. "But the magic of the white knight does not work anymore. He's been in charge for 4 years and is being held to account."
A FUTURE PRESIDENT?
Although poverty has dropped by a third since he was elected, half of Bulgarians live on less than 2 euros a day and his government has failed to jail a single "big fish" for graft.
Even Saxe-Coburg supporters were dismayed by his efforts to reclaim a fortune in property seized from him under communism. He also drew fire for sealing communist-era secret police files and courting a former KGB-allied spy as a potential adviser.
Peasants still mob the 68-year-old prime minister and make a fuss of him at appearances. Although he eschews pomp, some aides continue to address him as "Your Majesty".
There is legitimate and widespread respect for Saxe-Coburg as a person. Even his staunchest detractors are reluctant to embarrass a much-loved figure, whose dignity and intentions are never questioned. Analysts say his best chance of keeping power -- heading a coalition with the fractured centre-right -- is a long shot.
The frontrunning Socialists, ousted after Bulgaria's 1996-1997 economic meltdown, have pledged public wage rises and other spending hikes. They have been characterised by some as slightly more risky than Saxe-Coburg's liberal-minded centrists.
The prime minister has vowed to oppose any attempt by the Socialists to form and lead a government in the hope his party can take over talks and head the next coalition itself.
"Otherwise, even if we have a government in which the Socialists rule with his movement, Simeon will withdraw... and he will run for president," said Rumyana Kolarova, a political scientist at Sofia University. Barred once from vying for the mostly ceremonial post before he joined the 2001 parliamentary race, Saxe-Coburg should be eligible to stand against President Georgi Parvanov next year.
Analysts say his NMS could remain a powerful force without him, and Bulgaria's EU ambitions are expected to stay on track even if the Socialists unseat the ex-king as expected. But they added the experiment may act as a warning to Europe's other monarchs hoping for a political come-back. "It shows royals are not equipped to participate in party politics," Kolarova said. "The process means you come to power and then go into constructive opposition, but evidently a king in opposition is not European tradition accepts."
Author: Michael Winfrey