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Jewish World Review June 20, 2001 / 30 Sivan 5761

Philip Terzian

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Simeon rules! -- FEW election stories have pleased me as much as the latest news from Bulgaria. The two-month-old political party headed by ex-King Simeon II -- called, appropriately enough, the National Movement for Simeon II -- won 43 percent of the popular vote in this week's parliamentary elections. That's a substantial lead over the nearest competition, and assuming that Simeon can find a coalition partner, King Simeon II will be Bulgaria's new prime minister.

In the past, of course, monarchs have exercised absolute power, combining the role of head of state with the leadership of government. But I am unaware of any monarch, even a monarch without a throne, achieving the leadership of a government by democratic means. Whether Simeon is king, in spirit or fact, he will surely be prime minister and, as such, rates an asterisk in the history of constitutional monarchy.

Of course, this could all be just a momentary fantasy. The center-right Union of Democratic Forces, which has governed Bulgaria for the past four years, inherited a bankrupt ex-communist regime, put Bulgaria on the road to membership in the European Union and NATO, sold state-run enterprises, and instituted an unpopular austerity program. These latter measures were painfully necessary, to be sure, but still painful; and the party's share of the vote was correspondingly modest.

Simeon, by contrast, assembled a selection of foreign-trained lawyers, local TV anchormen and Bulgarian pop stars, and ran on a focus-group-certified platform of tax cuts, rooting out corruption, and attracting foreign investment. He also promised that his reform program would yield prosperity within 800 days, or else. No one knows where this nice, round figure came from, but everyone agrees that two-and-a-half years is plenty of time to find out if Simeonism works.

Indeed, many of Simeon's colleagues are Western-educated bankers and investors, long in exile from Bulgaria; and while seasoned in the world of business and finance, they are wholly inexperienced in politics and government. This, combined with the revelation that some of Simeon's candidates were former agents of the Communist secret police, lent his campaign a certain ad hoc quality. I should confess, at this juncture, that I harbor a soft spot for constitutional monarchies -- Spain, Belgium, Thailand, Great Britain, Liechtenstein, etc. -- believing that separating the functions of a head of state and head of government makes political sense. An American, of course, would argue that we have done just fine for 212 years, combining the two in one person; but what works for us doesn't necessarily work in Belgium or Tonga.

A case in point is Britain, or the Scandinavian monarchies, where the ancient ruling houses embody the State while the Government is run by a series of politicians. When the electorate is weary of particular policies, it votes Prime Minister So-and-So's party out of office, but avoids the trauma of upheaval or regicide, and resorts to the monarch to personify the Nation.

In that sense, Simeon is taking a considerable risk: If he doesn't deliver as promised within 800 days, he will not just lose his job as prime minister, but sacrifice the prospects for a royal restoration. Which is too bad. Simeon's father, King Boris III, was probably murdered by the Germans in 1943, and Simeon, whose country was overrun by the Red Army the following year, was forced by the Communists to abdicate in 1946 after a rigged plebiscite. At age nine, he was an exiled monarch; and now, 55 years later, he has come home to claim democratic power. It's a great story.

And, if it works, instructive as well. Juan Carlos of Spain was groomed to ascend the throne by Francisco Franco; but since 1975, when General Franco died and the Spanish royal house was restored, he has proved to be a wise and sagacious statesman -- a poster boy, if you will, for constitutional monarchy.

The lightning might strike for Simeon II as well. He has never renounced his claim to the Bulgarian throne, and even now, answers coyly when queried on the subject. Bulgaria could do worse; and Bulgaria, to its credit, is willing to experiment. This puts it in significant contrast to nearby Greece, which has turned its back on King Constantine, who was ousted in a 1967 military coup; to next-door Serbia, which would profit from the service of its king-in-waiting; and neighboring Romania, which won't even allow the popular ex-King Michael to enter the country.

A few years ago, when I asked some Romanian government officials about the king, they laughed nervously and dismissed him and his family as harmless relics. Now, with Simeon II in power across the border, their laughter sounds even more hollow than before.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal