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Bulgaria's PM-designate pledges help for poor

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

By Tsvetelia Tsolova

SOFIA (Reuters) - The man most likely to form Bulgaria's next government pledged on Sunday to spend more to help society's most deprived, but said he would keep public debt low enough to maintain a currency peg to the euro.

Plamen Oresharski, 53, offers the best chance for ending a political stalemate that has dragged on since the government quit in February in the face of protests against austerity measures in the European Union's poorest country.

Bulgaria needs a working government to hammer out a 2014 budget and lobby for EU funds required to end an economic crisis and raise living standards.

The center-right party that led the former government won most seats in a May 12 election but could not command a majority, so it passed the baton to Oresharski, a former finance minister, to build a cabinet of technocrats supported by the Socialists and the ethnic Turkish MRF.

The country's president has mandated him to form a government. He must still win a vote on confidence in parliament, a prospect seen as likely given that all he needs is one abstention among MPs from the center-right GERB or the nationalist Attack party.

"I have not been involved in political talks, but from some signs it is obvious that Attack will either abstain or not vote. That gives us certain reasons to be confident," the softly-spoken Oresharski told Reuters.

With the average salary at just 400 euros ($520) per month, pensions half that and every fifth Bulgarian living below the poverty line, the new government needs to show it can work to improve incomes or risk fresh demonstrations.

Although he is not a member of the political parties that have long dominated Bulgarian politics, Oresharski hardly symbolizes a fresh start.

He oversaw a period of dizzying economic boom and dramatic bust as finance minister in a Socialist-led administration that lasted from 2005 to 2009.

Given the May vote's inconclusive result and continued public frustration with the political class, Oresharski is treading carefully, promising policies with broad support across the parties.

He said the new government would look to find up to 200 million levs ($132 million) from the budget to help poorer people pay electricity and heating bills, create temporary jobs and boost support for mothers.

"I believe there is a way to restructure spending and keep the deficit at the planned level of 1.3 percent of gross domestic product this year," Oresharski said in an interview.

The new cabinet would keep flat income and corporate tax rates unchanged at 10 percent - some of the lowest in the EU - to attract foreign investors and help propel growth beyond an expected 1 percent this year, he said. Before the May vote, the Socialists had pledged to cut tax for lower earners.

Oresharski said he would discuss raising the minimum wage from 310 levs per month and increasing pensions, which have been frozen since 2009, in line with inflation, by boosting tax collection rather than raising additional loans.

The government would stick with a Socialist promise to create 250,000 more jobs in the country of 7.3 million and try to keep electricity prices unchanged. It promises to restructure an opaque and inefficient energy sector in an attempt to avoid more of the protests, which started when bills rose in cold weather.

It will also consider restarting a nuclear power plant project at Belene, canceled by the previous government, if a new review showed the 2,000 megawatt plant made economic sense, Oresharski said. ($1 = 1.5126 Bulgarian levs) ($1 = 0.7734 euros)

(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/130526/bulgarias-pm-designate-pledges-help-poor