(Reuters) - Romania's aged former King Michael delivered his first speech to parliament Tuesday since Soviet-backed communists forced him to abdicate more than 60 years ago, highlighting deep divisions over the country's past.
While opinion polls show most Romanians do not want the monarchy back, post-communist leaders have tried to limit Michael's influence, fearing he could erode their own power if given a platform.
"We cannot have a future without respecting the past," Michael, 90 and looking sprightly in a suit and striped tie, told a packed parliament on his birthday.
"The royal crown is not a symbol of the past but a unique representation of our independence, sovereignty and unity," said Michael, Europe's oldest former monarch and one of the last surviving World War Two-era heads of state.
Parliamentarians from across the political spectrum gave the king, who was forced to quit the throne in 1947, a standing ovation before and after his speech and some even took pictures on mobile phones.
Michael's speech was proposed by the opposition Liberals but opposed by the ruling Democrat-Liberals (PDL).
"Once he was anointed king of Romania by God through the church, he is our king for life, no matter what happens in political life," said Andrei Dinca, 31, a monarchist who took the day off work to watch the speech and mark the occasion.
"I don't think that the return of the monarchy will happen, but that does not stop me from hoping. It's in our nature to keep hoping even against all odds."
President Traian Basescu, who has close links to the PDL, has criticized the former king for leaving the throne, saying he was "Russia's servant," and did not attend the speech in parliament. Many PDL deputies did attend, however.
"This is a gesture of normality," said Mircea Geoana, speaker of Romania's upper house of parliament. "His Majesty's presence 64 years after his last speech in parliament is proof that the communist era is a closed bracket."
Romania is now a member of the European Union
EXILE AND RETURN
But its record in World War Two and its aftermath still stir heated debate.
The country fought alongside Nazi Germany and was occupied by the Soviet Union, which engineered the removal of the monarchy, fearing it could be a rallying point for opponents.
Michael played a central role in a 1944 coup to overthrow fascist wartime leader Marshal Ion Antonescu, after which Romania broke with Nazi Germany and switched to the Allied side.
After communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown and executed in a violent revolution in 1989, Romania blocked the first few visits Michael tried to make after decades of exile in Switzerland, Britain and the United States.
He finally returned to Romania in 1992 and only managed to regain his citizenship in 1997 after reformist President Emil Constantinescu took over from former communist Ion Iliescu.
Michael made several appeals for a restoration of the monarchy in the early 1990s. Iliescu deported him on several occasions and even once deployed tanks to prevent him from touring the eastern Balkan country.
Born in 1921 in his family's Peles castle in the Carpathian mountains, Michael is a descendant of the German Hohenzollern dynasty and a cousin of Britain's Queen Elizabeth.
The king still has many supporters -- thousands wished him happy birthday on his website -- and some gathered Tuesday outside parliament, a huge marble palace built in central Bucharest by Ceausescu.
Michael is to attend a concert Tuesday evening at Bucharest's opera with several other European royals and is expected to greet supporters, who will be able to watch on a big screen outside.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)