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Bulgarians Hold Final Round of Presidential Elections - 2001-11-18

Bulgarians are voting in the second and final round of presidential elections. An earlier vote one week ago was inconclusive and was marked by the lowest voter turnout since the collapse of communism 10 years ago. Incumbent President Petar Stoyanov is locked in an extremely close contest with his socialist opponent, Georgi Parvanov.

Nobody is willing to predict a winner in the final run-off ballot that was called after President Stoyanov failed to win an expected victory in the first round.

The first-round voter turnout was only about 40 percent, apparently a reflection of nationwide anger over widespread poverty and corruption scandals in this Balkan nation of eight million.

Incumbent President Stoyanov received 35 percent of the vote last Sunday, one percent less than his main challenger, socialist Georgi Parvanov. Mr. Stoyanov's poor showing came despite help from Bulgaria's former King Simeon II, now prime minister and known as Simeon Saxe-Coburg.

Even though he is not a member of the same party, Mr. Saxe-Coburg praised the president's international standing and attempts to gain Bulgaria's membership in NATO and the European Union.

Prime Minister Saxe-Coburg told VOA that the long period of Communist dictatorship is to blame for the decline in Bulgarian living standards since the first democratic elections were held in 1990. "Fifty years of Communism do leave a mental and intellectual burden," he said. "The lack of experience in democracy does not [help] things. The fact that we are in a far corner of Europe maybe also made some things more difficult."

Analysts say Mr. Saxe-Coburg has lost some of his credibility among voters who were hoping for a miracle when they elected the former King as their Prime Minister in June.

But five months later, many pensioners still live on less than $20 a month, unemployment is high and many people will stay hungry this winter.

Analysts say whoever wins the election will have to preside over yet more tough social reforms and further job cuts before the Bulgarian economy starts to recover.