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Ex-king party leads Bulgaria poll

SOFIA, Bulgaria (CNN) -- The party of former Bulgarian king Simeon II has a clear lead with over half the votes in the country's general election now counted.

With 51 percent of the ballots in Sunday's election tallied, the National Movement of Simeon II was shown with over 45 percent of the popular vote, the national election commission said.

Low living standards, government corruption and lack of patience for more painful reform were credited for the strong showing for the movement which was largely unknown two months ago.

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A visibly elated Simeon told a news conference on Sunday: "After today, Bulgaria is different.

"Together, we are embarking on a path of economic and moral renovation. It will not be an easy one, there will be many obstacles but we will not give up."

It will be the first return to politics by a monarch in ex-communist Europe.

Votes still being tallied

With 51 percent of the vote counted, the party had won 45.36 percent of the tally, far ahead of the 19.33 percent won by the United Democratic Forces coalition, which currently holds power.

Bulgaria's Prime Minister Ivan Kostov conceded his UDF party suffered "a heavy election defeat."

Kostov told a news conference the main reason was that his government was trying simultaneously to stabilize the country after a grave economic crisis in 1996-1997 and carry out reforms.

"We have taken a lot of unpopular decisions and also made mistakes," Reuters reported Kostov as saying.

"We wanted the voter to pay a higher price than he was prepared to pay."

The coalition of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, a descendant of the Communist Party which ruled the country for more than 40 years when it was a Soviet satellite state, won 16.71 percent of the vote.

The coalition representing the Rights and Freedoms Movement Party, which has the support of the ethnic Turkish population, won 4.95 percent.

Vmro-Gergovden, with just 4.29 percent of the tally, brought up the rear.

Voter turnout was 66.25 percent.

It was not immediately clear whether Simeon's movement would win enough votes to form an outright majority in the 240-seat single-chamber legislature.

But his aides immediately invited Kostov's camp to join the future government, despite a fierce anti-Simeon campaign by the UDF in the run-up to the poll.

"We are very happy about the election result and our position about forming a coalition government remains unchanged, even if we win a clear majority," Plamen Panayotov, number two in Simeon's movement, told Reuters.

He said "natural partners" for the movement would be the UDF-led coalition and the MRF.

The ruling party, United Democratic Forces, held 137 seats.

The National Movement of Simeon the Second and independent polling agencies have predicted it will win between 107 and 127 seats. It needs 121 to win a majority. If not, it would have to set up a coalition government.

Campaign issues

Improving the country's living standards was the biggest campaign issue. The United Democratic Forces led the country's eight million inhabitants through four years of drastic economic reforms that followed guidelines set by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union.

Though Bulgaria's economy improved on a macro level, growing 5.8 percent last year and earning the trust of international investors, Bulgarians' living conditions improved little. The official rate of unemployment is 17.75 percent, though some trade unions say the actual figure is as high as 35 percent.

The average monthly salary is $100.

The former king returned to Bulgaria in 1998 and declared his intention to reenter Bulgarian politics in April by announcing formation of the party bearing his name.

Simeon, 64, made three promises to Bulgaria's voters: to raise the living standards, doubling the average monthly salary in 800 days; to fight corruption in government, whose image has been hurt by the widespread perception that the privatization of former state enterprises was marked graft; and the imposition of higher requirements on those who exercise power.

Simeon also said he would give Bulgarians access to no-interest loans and pledged to introduce economic incentives to help small- and medium-sized businesses.

Simeon II was deposed in 1946 after a referendum which declared Bulgaria a republic, and he fled to Egypt with his mother and then to Madrid, where he worked as a businessman and lived in exile for 55 years.

Venelin Petkov, Balkan TV correspondent, contributed to this story.





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