Each day and night for three weeks, thousands of demonstrators occupied Bucharest’s University Square, which one banner called “The neo-Communist-free zone of Romania.” The protesters, mainly young intellectuals, blocked one of the capital’s main thoroughfares to all but emergency traffic. Defiantly festive, they waved Romanian flags and placards calling for the resignation of Ion Iliescu, a former Communist who emerged as the leader of the National Salvation Front government during the revolution that overthrew dictator Nicolae Ceauescu in December. But when Iliescu travels to the countryside, he is mobbed by supporters. And according to opinion polls published last week, Iliescu and the Front are expected to win a resounding victory in parliamentary and presidential elections on May 20, Romania’s first multiparty vote in 44 years. Declared Simona Kessler, a 32-year-old book editor who demonstrated every night in University Square: “My only hope now is that we Romanians are true to ourselves—volatile and unpredictable.”
Since the heady days of December, open politics have deeply divided Romanian society. On one side are intellectuals who advocate banning all former Communists from power.
On the other are industrial workers and peasants who credit the Front, which includes many former Communist officials, for deposing and executing Ceauçescu and his wife, Elena. Those divisions have often flared into violence. Only last week, the National Liberal Party’s presidential candidate, Radu Campeanu, narrowly escaped a mob beating while campaigning in Bräila in southeast Romania. And other opposition leaders have complained about harassment by Front supporters.
In response, Washington last week recalled its ambassador to Romania. “This decision,” explained state department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler, “has been taken in light of reports of irregularities in the Romanian electoral process, which raise questions about whether those elections will be free and fair.”
Last week, negotiations between Iliescu and the demonstrators in University Square broke down. And although the talks were rescheduled for the weekend, there appeared to be little hope for a compromise. The protesters have demanded that Iliescu, who was a senior Communist official until he fell out of favor with Ceauçescu 15 years ago, be banned from holding public office for a decade.
They also want to delay elections to give the
opposition more time to organize. At a campaign rally last week in Ploie§ti, 60 km northwest of Bucharest, Iliescu said that he refused to consider those demands. “It’s an insult to the intelligence of Romanians,” he said, “to say that they are not yet fit to make political judgments.” After his speech, the Peasant party withdrew from the provisional government because of what one party official called Iliescu’s “unfair and arrogant” response to their demand that the vote be delayed.
Although Iliescu’s victory as president seems almost assured, the Front may fall short of an absolute majority in parliament. According to the state-funded Romanian Opinion Poll Institute, support for the Front has fallen by 10 points in recent weeks to 58.6 per cent. The Front has indicated a willingness to form a coalition government. That, analysts say, is at least in part because the new government faces a formidable task in overcoming deep social and economic problems. Said Nestor Ratesh, head of Romanian Services for U.S.-run Radio Free Europe: “No one in their right minds could want to govern this country alone for the next two years.”
Since the revolution, a confusing array of 82 political parties and 900 newspapers have emerged, contributing to a sense of political chaos. But only the Peasants, Liberals and the Front were able to gather the required 100,000 nominations to field presidential candidates.
All three parties have promised a transition to a free market, although the Front has pledged to take a more gradual approach in order to avoid massive unemployment. Workers appear more wary of the Liberal and Peasant parties, whose members have argued that only a rapid privatization of the economy will work. Said Elena Radulescu, a machinist at a Bucharest clothing factory: “We know we have to learn what democracy means. But we don’t need neofascists to show us the way.”
Aside from their differences on how fast to implement a free market, however, the platforms of the three leading political parties are similar—and equally vague: they promise freedom, democracy and minority rights.
As a result, the election campaign has focused on personalities. Western observers say that many Romanians, who have grown accustomed to authoritarian rule, are looking for a benevolent leader to replace their former malevolent dictator—and Iliescu appears to be the favorite. Said Radulescu: “We admire his spirit of helping the people.”
On the other hand, Peasant presidential candidate Ion RaÇiu is a multimillionaire who spent 50 years in exile in Britain. Many Romanian workers say that he represents the greedy capitalist traditionally vilified in Communist propaganda. And although Liberal candidate Campeanu, who lived 13 years in exile in
Paris, is widely respected among intellectuals as an able politician, he is ridiculed among workers because of rumors that he runs a brothel in Paris and dyes his eyebrows black. Front leaders have also accused RaÇiu and Campeanu of abandoning Romania in its darkest days. Said Corneliu Opri§, a Front supporter and mayor of Sercaia, a village in Transylvania: “Iliescu stayed here and suffered with us.” Although some opposition leaders have been included in the provisional
government since late February, the Front retained most important government posts. It has also won political support for sweeping away some of the most unpopular policies of the Ceau§escu regime. Romanians are now permitted to use more than one light bulb in each room, and food and fuel rationing has ended. The government repealed unpopular laws that banned abortion and forced many Romanians to work long hours, seven days a week. And it has more than doubled the land under private ownership to
31 per cent from 15 per cent. “We looked like corpses after working 16 hours a day,” said Mihaela Diacono, a factory worker in Bucharest who says that the current government has allowed her to work only eight hours a day.
Another Front supporter, Valerica Criçtae, a peasant in the Transylvanian village of Sinca Nouaa, says that the Front has granted her new freedoms. For one, she said, “I don’t have to pay a fine every time a hungry bear comes down from the mountain and carries off one of my lambs.”
The new opposition parties have been hampered by a chronic lack of funds and campaigning expertise. Their leaders have focused their energies on large campaign rallies, even though international experts have advised them that rallies only gather people who are already converted. Posters and leaflets are rare. And in outlying villages, only the Front has established local organizations.
Some Western analysts say that, although they distrust Iliescu because of his past ties with the Ceau§escu regime, they remain optimistic that democracy will survive even a resounding Front victory. Said Tudor Bompa of Toronto, president of the Romanian World Congress: “The people have had a taste of victory during the revolution, and they have had a taste of dictatorship. If Iliescu tries to go against democracy, his regime will have a lot of trouble.” Despite deep political and social divisions, Romania’s lingering revolutionary fervor may still see the nation through the difficult days ahead.
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