SOFIA, Bulgaria — The Communist Party leader of Bulgaria on Monday promised free elections by June and an end to the party's automatic right to rule.
"We propose that the National Assembly organize new, free democratic elections by the end of May," Petar Mladenov told a meeting of the party's decision-making Central Committee.
Mladenov also said the party's guaranteed dominance of Bulgarian society is being scrapped. "The leading role of the party cannot be declared administratively," he said, "but must come from the trust of the people."
A Communist Party spokesman told a news conference that the party is proposing to the National Assembly that the article of the constitution guaranteeing the party's monopoly on power be scrapped and a new constitution drawn up by the end of 1990.
Mladenov's announcement comes in the wake of similar moves by the East German and Czechoslovak parties to surrender their absolute grip on power.
It followed a four-week whirlwind of political change in this Balkan country of 9 million, culminating in a pro-democracy rally Sunday in Sofia that drew tens of thousands of people to the streets.
Mladenov, a former foreign minister who took over from veteran hard-liner Todor Zhivkov last month, also proposed a dialogue "with all powers of society which work on the basis of socialism and patriotism."
But it was not immediately clear if this dialogue would involve opposition groups, which have demanded talks with the ruling party on the future of the country.
Free elections as early as May in this country--which until a few weeks ago was a fortress of Stalinism--are likely to favor the Communists. The growing number of still-unregistered political, religious and ecological groups were banned until recently and have had little time to establish themselves.
A Sofia court Monday registered Eco-Glasnost, an environmentalist group, as Bulgaria's first officially independent organization.
Mladenov, whose speech to the policy-making Central Committee was carried by Bulgarian Radio, said the party will also hold an extraordinary congress of grass-roots members next March. The congress is the body that could elect a new Central Committee, and the prevailing belief is that a more reformist Central Committee would result. Until Mladenov's speech, the party congress had been scheduled for late next year.
Mladenov also proposed that Parliament vote this week to set up a commission to investigate charges of corruption during the 35-year rule of the now-disgraced Zhivkov.
As the Central Committee meeting continued in closed session, 12,000 Bulgarians massed in freezing darkness near party headquarters to hold a silent candlelight vigil in support of opposition demands for further political change.
"The people are not satisfied with what the party has done until now," a dissident priest, Father Hristofor Sabev, told a reporter. "People want general change, not just lies."
In a gesture of anger, those in the crowd raised their candles in the direction of a giant red star atop the party building. Police did not intervene, and the crowd dispersed peacefully after one hour.
Sunday's rally, organized by 19 independent groups, was the largest public show of skepticism about Mladenov's commitment to reform since he ousted Zhivkov.
Although Mladenov has purged many of Zhivkov's hard-line allies from top party posts and brought unprecedented openness to the state-controlled media, many Bulgarians have said the changes are not enough.
Those who turned out Sunday voted to support opposition demands for the resignation of the entire Central Committee, an end to the party's guaranteed monopoly on power and immediate round-table talks.
Unofficial trade union leader Konstantin Trenchev, speaking before Mladenov announced the political changes Monday, said he could not rule out the possibility of a general strike.
"People expect changes, and if they don't happen, a strike could be possible in the coming months," he said.
Rabotnichesko Delo, the party's daily newspaper, reported that more than 4,000 letters and telephone calls demanding reforms have been received since Zhivkov was dismissed.
An opinion poll ordered by the Central Committee and published by the paper said that only 23% of those responding expressed great trust in the party and only 32% indicated trust in any political organization.
The paper reported that one-third of those polled said they wanted a multi-party political system, 68.9% supported a system based on law and 77.7% said economic reform was imperative.