WORLD

GOING AGAINST THE TREND

AMID CHARGES OF FRAUD, FORMER COMMUNISTS WIN ROMANIA’S FIRST MULTIPARTY VOTE IN FOUR DECADES

ANDREW PHILLIPS June 4 1990
WORLD

GOING AGAINST THE TREND

AMID CHARGES OF FRAUD, FORMER COMMUNISTS WIN ROMANIA’S FIRST MULTIPARTY VOTE IN FOUR DECADES

ANDREW PHILLIPS June 4 1990

GOING AGAINST THE TREND

WORLD

AMID CHARGES OF FRAUD, FORMER COMMUNISTS WIN ROMANIA’S FIRST MULTIPARTY VOTE IN FOUR DECADES

Outside polling station No. 57 in the small Romanian town of Scorniceşsti, enterprising vendors grilled pork sausages for the hungry crowd. Inside the drab concrete-block school, locals waited for up to three hours to do something that no one in Romania had done in 44 years: vote in a multiparty election. Scomiceçti became infamous in Romania as the home town of Nicolae Ceau§escu, the Communist dictator who was overthrown and executed during a bloody uprising last December. But election day there was little different from elsewhere in Romania: farmers squinted at the complicated ballots, and families crowded into voting booths

to help illiterate elderly people mark the paper. And when the votes were counted last week, Scomice§ti had joined the rest of the country in giving overwhelming support to a former senior Communist official, 60-year-old Ion Iliescu.

Iliescu, Romania’s interim leader since December, won a crushing 85 per cent of the vote for president. And his National Salvation Front, a coalition that includes many onetime Communists and army officers, took twothirds of the seats in the country’s new two-chamber parliament. Romania’s violent revolution differed dramatically from the peaceful upheavals that toppled Communist regimes in other Eastern European countries. And last week’s vote contrasted with the trend set by the East Germans and Hungarians, who rejected former Communists in recent elections. The outcome dismayed opposition activists. And even some Front supporters cautioned that their triumph was too great. “This is no good for democracy,” said Silviu Brucan, one of the Front’s leading intellectuals. “A strong opposition is good for democracy—particularly when a democracy is in the making.”

For Iliescu’s opponents, the results were devastating. Radu Câmpeanu, 66, the National Liberal Party’s presidential candidate, won just 11 per cent of the vote. Ion Ra{iu, a 73-year-old bow-tied millionaire who returned to Romania after a 50-year exile in London to run for the National Peasant Party, came third with a humiliating four per cent. Last week, Rafiu said that he would contest the results, claiming that the Front had committed “massive fraud” by stuffing ballot boxes and distributing ballots with its candidates already marked. But most foreign observers rejected such charges.

A 60-member international team (including six Canadians), organized by the U.S. Republican and Democratic parties, agreed that the process was “flawed” but said that its members did not see evidence of systematic fraud. Still, they reprimanded the Front government for failing to ensure a freer climate during the election campaign, which was marred by violence against opposition candidates. As a result, the American observers concluded that “the democratic credentials of the National Salvation Front have not been fully established.”

Despite those concerns, there was clearly little question that the outcome came close to reflecting the will of most Romanians. Many voters credited Iliescu’s Front with removing the worst excesses of the Ceau§escu regime— and with modest improvements in their lives. Gheorghe Sterea, a farmer in the village of

Ciofliceni, near Bucharest, said that he voted for Iliescu because he was grateful that he could reclaim land seized from him under Ceauçescu’s policy of “systemization”—a plan to destroy traditional villages and relocate their inhabitants in centralized apartment complexes. Sterea was out last week working on the site of his old house, which had been razed in 1988 as part of that deeply unpopular program. “Now, I can build again,” he said. “Everyone around here went with Iliescu. Why should we put at risk the improvements we have already seen?”

Another village, Mirghia, reflected the same deeply conservative thinking that clearly dominates the backward countryside of Romania, the poorest country in Europe aside from isolated Albania. Some voters went to the polls in donkey carts, while the few battered Dacia cars dodged chickens on the deeply rutted dirt road. At polling station No. 127, a disgruntled Peasant party organizer complained to a visitor that the campaign was loaded against his group. But local farmers quickly interjected, accusing him of representing rich farmers who want to reclaim land that they owned before the end of the Second World War. The Front

government’s policy of giving each farmer an extra 1.2 acres of land to work privately won them almost all the votes in the village. “We’re happy to have a little more land for a couple of cows,” said one elderly woman. “These people just want the rich to get everything back.” A similar sentiment was evident among workers, who voted massively for the Front largely because Iliescu promised to protect their jobs by moving slowly towards a market economy.

Romanians’ general willingness to back a man who was once one of Ceau§escu’s closest collaborators prompted something close to despair among those who had sought a clean break with the Communist past. Thomas Kleininger, a leading member of the Group for Social Dialogue, made up of Bucharest intellectuals, said that Romanians are afraid of rapid change after 44 years of communism. “They are easily satisfied if they have a job,” he said. “For now,

at least, they aren’t interested in changing things very much.”

Other factors played a role. The December revolution left the Communist power structure essentially untouched, giving the Front control of most town administrations. Both opposition presidential candidates had spent many years in exile, Rafiu in London and Câmpeanu in Paris, and many voters said that they regarded them as outsiders. “Iliescu wasn’t abroad when we had Ceau§escu,” said Sterea, the farmer in Ciofliceni. “He suffered with us.”

In fact, Iliescu had a long career in Romania’s Communist party and was even regarded at one time as Ceau§escu’s chosen successor. He clashed with the dictator in 1971 and was demoted. But he remained a member of the party’s Central Committee until 1984 and retained some party posts until as late as 1987.

For Romania’s handful of onetime dissidents, the outcome was a bitter blow. Doina Cornea, 62, the best-known dissident under Ceau§escu, staged a weeklong hunger strike to underscore her opposition to Iliescu. On the eve of the vote, just hours after ending her fast, she emerged, gaunt and frail, from her house in the Transylvanian city of Cluj to warn that

Romanians were about to betray their revolution. “The people have let themselves be manipulated by fear,” she said. “It’s terrible.”

In Bucharest, student protesters who occupied the city’s University Square since late April vowed to continue their demonstrations. But their protest lost momentum after the Front’s crushing victory, and by week’s end it appeared increasingly aimless. Instead, the initiative lay with Iliescu. After his victory, he declared that he wanted to transform Romania into a “Swedish-style social democracy” and promised to lead his country into the European Community. But his murky past appears to put his newly professed commitment to market economics seriously in doubt. And it suggests that Romania’s new democracy still rests on extremely shaky foundations.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in Scornice§ti