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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 June, 2005, 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK
Bulgaria's election lottery

By Nick Thorpe
BBC, Sofia

If Bulgaria sees a large turnout of voters this year, it may not necessarily be an indication of an electorate keen to engage with national politics. It may also have something to do with a special election lottery, where the top prize on offer is a car.

Prime Minister Simeon meets supporters
Former King Simeon was exiled throughout the communist era

Next to the Palace of Culture in central Sofia, children rise gracefully into the air on the back of fibreglass swans.

Beneath them, a scantily clad woman gyrates on a stage and a horde of screaming teenagers converge.

The Bulgarian Peoples' Union has engaged a popular singer to boost their fortunes. Led by the mayor of Sofia, they are one of a cluster of small centre-right parties struggling to cross the 4% threshold to enter Parliament.

The giants of the race are the Movement for Simeon II, the liberal party led by former king Simeon - prime minister for the past four years - and the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP).

Opinion polls predict that the BSP will reap a harvest of dissatisfaction with the king, who has overseen dramatic political and economic progress for the country, but has failed to improve the standard of living of millions of Bulgarians.

First-time voters

Knowing that his own voters are more hesitant than those on the left, the election lottery is the idea of Simeon's movement.

Prizes include flat-screen television sets, mobile phones, and even a new car.

BSP leader Sergei Stanishev
Polls suggest victory for Sergei Stanishev's Bulgarian Socialist Party

His opponents tried but failed to stop the lottery idea in the courts. Critics say it demeans the electoral process.

Proponents say commercial marketing techniques have not exactly been absent from elections in the past.

Back on the stage in Sofia's central park, the mayor makes a brief appearance, but to the crowd's delight, does not bore them with politics. He hands over to his teenage daughter. The event is targeted at first-time voters.

At a safe distance from the loudspeakers, sitting on a bench in the lee of a chapel dedicated to the victims of communism, an elderly gentleman confides that he is not going to bother this weekend.

"For 15 years all we have had is promises," he says. "None of the parties deserves my vote."

Choppy waters

Across the city at the Druzhstvo, or Friendship housing estate, built in 1968 for visitors to an International Congress of Communist Youth, the BSP has organised a rather different rally.

Three traditional folk dancers
Folk dances are often performed in Bulgaria at special events

Folk dancers in national costume kick their boots high in the air in front of a banner of the red, socialist rose, and astonish the gaping children with their voluminous petticoats.

The organisers hope to encourage pensioners - 25% of the Bulgarian population - to vote for a left-wing government.

An elderly man in the crowd tells me he will vote for any party which will lay on a direct bus service from the estate to the railway station.

"I'm voting socialist too," says his wife.

The strange thing about the socialists is their lack of confidence.

They are still smarting from the humiliation of 1997, when they were removed from power by street protests.

The socialists appear torn between hope of outright victory and fear of the responsibility of steering Bulgaria, single-handed, through choppy waters

Led by the urbane 39-year-old Sergei Stanishev, they appear torn between hope of outright victory and fear of the responsibility of steering Bulgaria, single-handed, through choppy waters.

This election is taking place in the shadow of the referenda in France and the Netherlands which rejected the proposed European Union constitution.

A common reason given for the "No" votes in those countries was opposition to further enlargement - and Bulgaria and Romania are due to join in January 2007.

The main task of the next government will be to reassure an increasingly dubious Europe that further expansion is in everybody's interest.

Some in Bulgaria propose a so-called red-yellow coalition - led by the socialists, but with the king's liberals providing a fig-leaf of respectability - and continuity in negotiations with Brussels.

Chequered past

Hristo Hristov
Author Hristo Hristov reveals that Markov was stabbed on Waterloo Bridge with a poisoned pen, not an umbrella

Bulgaria's international image has received two blows recently, neither of which help her EU hopes. Both concern the secret services.

As Pope John Paul II lay dying, memories of the assassination attempt against him by a Turkish citizen resurfaced, and with them the rumours of a Bulgarian connection.

And last week a new book was published about the killing of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, in London in 1978.

Author Hristo Hristov reveals that Markov was stabbed on Waterloo Bridge with a poisoned pen, not an umbrella, as is commonly believed.

Dropping an umbrella was the assassin's ploy to get close to his victim, Hristov told me, over beer and salad in an outdoor restaurant.

He is demanding the National Intelligence Agency open its own file on the case, something it has always refused to do.

He makes no attempt to speak quietly. Other tables fall silent, and the waiter edges closer. His book caught the authorities off guard, he says. He hopes the next government, whoever they are, will finally reveal the truth.

Under the tall trees in front of the National Theatre, I meet an old friend - a native of this city - for a coffee and a cake early one morning.

"I had forgotten how beautiful Sofia is," she says.

There is still a gentleness among the Bulgarians, which other East or Central Europeans, ahead of them in the race to imitate the West, have already lost.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 25 June, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Bulgaria
22 Jun 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Bulgaria
11 May 05 |  Country profiles
King who came in from the cold
18 Jun 01 |  Europe


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