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Ex-king wins Bulgaria poll

SOFIA, Bulgaria (CNN) -- The party of former Bulgarian king Simeon II wins the country's general election, promising to raise living standards and tackle corruption.

Balkan TV correspondent Venelin Petkov told CNN that with 99 percent of ballots tallied national election commission figures showed the National Movement of Simeon II taking 43 percent.

This provides a large margin against 18 percent for the Union of Democratic Forces coalition, which currently holds power.

Low living standards, government corruption and lack of patience for more painful reform were credited for the strong showing of the National Movement for Simeon II's which was largely unknown two months ago.

Petkov quoted further figures showing the coalition of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, a descendant of the Communist Party that ruled the country for more than 40 years, winning 17 percent of the vote.

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The coalition representing the Rights and Freedoms Movement Party, which has the support of the ethnic Turkish population, was shown taking seven percent.

The Vmro-Gergovden, brought up the rear with 3.68 percent, meaning it is just shy of the four percent required for representation in parliament.

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

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"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. Simeon II did not run for election himself and it is still unclear exactly what role he will play in the next government.

Bulgaria's Prime Minister Ivan Kostov on Sunday 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 stabilise 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."

It is not yet clear whether Simeon's movement will take enough seats to form an outright majority in the 240-seat single-chamber legislature.

Petkov said at this stage it was being widely predicted they would be one or two seats short.

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.

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, 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, and the average monthly salary is $100.

The former king returned to Bulgaria in 1998 and formed the party bearing his name in April.

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 privatisation 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 that 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.





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