SOFIA, Bulgaria - Well-bred, well-connected and impeccably tailored, ex-King Simeon II is by most accounts a prince of a fellow. Many commoners in Bulgaria think he would make an excellent president or prime minister for their beleaguered country.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for June 17, polls show Simeon's political organization leading the center-right ruling party and the main opposition party by wide margins. It is not quite clear, however, whether the former king himself is actually a candidate.
As leader of the National Movement for King Simeon II, the 63-year-old Simeon has fielded a slate of candidates, but he is not among them. He has promised to transform the country within 800 days, but he has not said how. Simeon's campaign headquarters said he would clarify the role he intends to play with an announcement sometime soon.
Does this mean Bulgaria is about to become the first post-Communist country in Eastern Europe to restore its monarchy? Simeon will say only that restoration of the monarchy "is not on the agenda at this time."
If all of this sounds a bit vague, polite vagueness appears not only to be a prerogative of noblesse, but also a winning campaign strategy. One thing seems sure: Bulgaria's already shaky political system is about to undergo a royal upheaval.
Simeon Borisov Saxe-Coburg-Gotha's birth in 1937 was greeted with the celebratory booming of cannons in Sofia and the tolling of church bells across the land. The Bulgarian air force was dispatched to Palestine to bring water from the River Jordan for the royal baptism.
Deposed by Soviets
Simeon took the throne at age 6 when his father, King Boris III, died in 1943, but his reign was short-lived. Allied with the Nazis during World War II, Bulgaria fell under Soviet domination at the war's end. A rigged referendum in 1946 abolished the monarchy and sent the royal family into exile.
Simeon has spent most of his adult life in Spain, where he established himself as a "financial consultant." The exact nature of his business and details about his personal wealth have been discreetly obscured.
The ex-king returned to visit his former realm for the first time in 1996 and was greeted by large and enthusiastic crowds. This apparently convinced him that he had a future in politics. He toyed with the idea of a run for the presidency, but was shot down by the Bulgarian courts, which ruled that he failed to meet residency requirements.
He returned for good this spring, settling into a palatial estate on the outskirts of Sofia, one of several royal properties restored to him by the democratic government.
He promptly launched his National Movement with a televised address in April, and while he insists he is not campaigning, he has been busy whistle-stopping across the country, receiving bouquets from ecstatic supporters, blowing kisses to the throngs that turn out to greet him, and saying very little.
Last week, he was in Pazardzik, a large, economically depressed town 60 miles east of Sofia where he drew an enthusiastic crowd of several thousand. From a platform in the town's main square, Simeon spoke for several minutes without a microphone. No one beyond a few feet away from Simeon could hear what he was saying, but the crowd fervently applauded the movement of his lips and chanted his name.
`He looks intelligent'
"He looks intelligent, and he has never stolen from the Bulgarian people," said Ivan Noriev, 52, who got up early for a chance to catch a glimpse of Simeon.
Noriev, an engineer, recently lost his job with biotechnology giant Monsanto when the company restructured its Eastern European operations. He said he voted for the reform coalition that won the last election, but that he had become disillusioned and would switch to the king's party this time.
"I'm not a fool. I know he doesn't have a magic wand, but I think we should give him a chance," the engineer said.
Hardcore monarchists make up no more than 2 percent or 3 percent of the Bulgarian vote, and polls show that 80 percent of the population believes a republic is preferable to a constitutional monarchy.
Political analysts say Simeon draws his strength from the protest vote - those who are fed up with economic sacrifices imposed by the reform-minded Union of Democratic Forces over the past four years, but who are not yet ready to forgive the former Communists for botching the job so badly when they regained power in 1994.
In the initial burst of exuberance after Simeon's campaign was launched, polls showed him with 40 percent of the vote - more than double that of the ruling Union of Democratic Forces. The race has tightened, but Simeon still appears to be the easy winner.
"Simeon's strategy is to avoid specifics. That way people can project onto him whatever they want," said a senior Western diplomat in Sofia.
Emil Koshloukov, a former student dissident who spent four years in a Communist prison, recently bolted from the UDF to become manager of Simeon's campaign.
Living link to the past