AIM: start

THU, 14 FEB 2002 16:16:23 GMT

Emperor-Turned-Prime-Minister Criticizes His Associates

The founding congress of the Simeon II National Movement was not held. Simeon of Sax-Cobourg is trying his best to save his plummeting popularity rating.

AIM Sofia, February 2, 2002

On Jan. 26, in Hall 2 of the National Culture Castle in Sofia, 800 people gathered to help give birth to a new party -- the Simeon II National Movement. About 850 glasses were waiting to be filled with champagne, and everybody was awaiting the appearance of the man the movement was named for, the man who last summer won elections for the Bulgarian Parliament and needed a classical political organization to continue playing the game. However, Simeon II was late and that irritated his guests. After an hour's delay the former emperor turned prime minister finally appeared only to repeat his favorite phrase -- "the time to transform the Movement into a political party has not yet come." This amazed the guests, but the real shocker was yet to come: immediately after that he began criticizing his ministers and MPs. "I cannot accept petty bickering, lack of teamwork, ministers who care more about administrative problems than the conditions in which people actually live. MPs have forgotten that they are representatives of the people, yet don't bother to visit those who have elected them, and are ready to criticize others but not to report on their own work and progress," said the prime minister.

Strangely enough these words didn't bother any of those present, as if they weren't the ones being criticized. The stronger the prime minister's words, the stronger their applause. After the convention failed, most cabinet ministers said that the criticism did not pertain to them. The effects of the emperor's speech were stunning. It turned out that there wasn't the slightest truth to rumors that Simeon II was oblivious to what was going on around him.

This is what Simeon badly needed, because his popular ratings had begun to slide. His maneuver turned things around. In only 13 minutes he revised his image, becoming a good prime minister with a bad cabinet and MPs. His words made it clear that he was not "a tired man," as he likes to put it himself, and that he is aware that the credibility of his Movement, cabinet and his person is on a downward slope. He obviously realized what irritated people the most and decided to use their language to regain the trust they vested in him last summer. On June 17, 2001, Bulgarians voted for his Movement, created only two months before the vote, seeing in him their only hope for a better life, something the cabinet of his predecessor, Ivan Kostov, could not give them.

Back then, Simeon of Sax-Cobourg promised that in 800 days he would make their dreams come true. But after 180 days there were no signs that the things had changed for the better. The only comfort was that at least they hadn't deteriorated either. Still, the people are losing patience. They have begun losing hope in the emperor as well, despite the West's praises of his cabinet and the fact that several international financial institutions have said Bulgaria's credit rating is up. The average salary is now slightly over US$100, and the average pension suffices to pay electricity and heating bills. The discrepancy between promises and reality is why many Bulgarians are also unsatisfied with the current cabinet.

The prime minister had to do something to change this. And he chose the right time and place, because the gathering had been at the focus of public attention for days and was broadcast live by numerous TV and radio stations. Thus ordinary citizens could hear straight from the prime minister exactly what they wanted to hear, and that made them feel better regardless of the fact that the prime minister could have simply dismissed the ministers instead of just criticizing them.

But this gave the emperor additional time. The effects of his speech at the failed congress will not last long, and living standards are unlikely to improve soon, the unemployment problem will not be resolved, and the taxes will not go down. Because of this, there will be changes in Simeon's cabinet.

Encouraged by the prime minister's criticism, Movement MPs are gearing up to demand that the ministers of finance, transportation, health care, social welfare and culture be dismissed. The prime minister, however, has said that he was not calling for resignations, but it is believed this statement was made only because he wasn't ready for such drastic steps at that time.

Cabinet reshuffles are nothing new in Bulgaria, this is what Ivan Kostov did in the fall of 1999. But for him it meant only another six months in office and nothing more.

There is also a possibility that Simeon of Sax-Cobourg will find a better way of securing his political survival. In addition to reshuffling the cabinet, he could also review the manner in which his Movement's caucus is functioning in Parliament, given that the legislative process in general is very chaotic.

Many observers do not believe that the cabinet and Parliament will remain in office until the end of their term. People are beginning to speak about early elections. The question is not whether early elections will be held, but when they will be scheduled. Until Jan. 26, most observers believed they will be held this year. But the emperor has intimated that he has other aces up his sleeve. Still, this cannot help him indefinitely. He has until the summer of 2003.

Plamen Kulinski