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Bulgarian government appoints new deputy PM after protests

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SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria appointed a deputy prime minister on Wednesday to replace Valeri Simeonov who resigned after weeks of street protests over remarks he made about disabled rights activists.

In a 116-62 vote, parliament backed Mariana Nikolova to replace Simeonov, one of the leaders of the United Patriots, an alliance of nationalist parties that together form the junior coalition partner in the 18-month-old government.

The opposition Socialists and ethnic Turkish MRF party voted against the appointment and called for an early election amid sporadic street protests over corruption, high fuel prices and low living standards in the European Union's poorest country.

"We do have a four-year governing programme," and plan to raise spending on education and salaries, deputy leader of the ruling GERB party Tsetan Tsetanov told parliament.

Support for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov's government has waned. The centre-right GERB party's lead over its main rivals, the Socialists, has narrowed to 1.3 percentage points, a public opinion survey by Trend pollster showed.

The average monthly salary in Bulgaria has increased by about 7 percent to 570 euros since Borissov's cabinet took office in May 2017, but remains among the lowest in the EU.

Nikolova's appointment was not backed by one of the three parties that make up United Patriots, highlighting tensions within the alliance that ensures Borissov's parliamentary majority.

Simeonov had apologised after referring to rights activists as "shrill women" and suggesting they were "speculating" about their children's health.

(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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