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Romania '96: Ballots, Not Bullets

Elections: Memories of bloody revolution in 1989 kept former Communists in power for years. Recent vote shows shift.

November 16, 1996|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUCHAREST, Romania — Soaring prices, idle factories and new outbreaks of contagious disease all attest to an impoverished Romania in the throes of economic and social decline.

But emerging alongside that gloomy picture is a remarkable political phenomenon: democratic change in a country where it was perhaps least expected.

In massive numbers, Romanians voted last week to oust the former Communists who have ruled them ever since the 1989 overthrow and execution of Eastern Europe's most brutal dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. And Sunday, they will choose a president in a very close race that could end President Ion Iliescu's firm hold on power and make an opposition takeover complete.

"It's a second revolution, a radical change--and so unexpected," said Stelian Tanase, a pro-opposition political scientist. "In Romania it is a new experience to change power peacefully, by voting. People are desperate, but they are also more courageous than they were six or seven years before. They are now willing to risk change."

Indeed, this will be Romania's first peaceful transfer of power in 60 years, and it reflects a newly efficient opposition, an aggressively free media, growing anger at miserable economic conditions and a fading image of Iliescu as the savior who ousted the dreaded Ceausescu.

Gimmicks such as lotteries and prizes have helped lure voters into the political process. Television and radio stations doled out television sets and hundreds of dollars to the best questioners at public candidate forums; voters could redeem their stamped voting cards for baseball caps, and more than 10,000 did so, according to the television station that sponsored the contest.

Private television, which challenges the official, Iliescu-controlled version, has grown in the last couple of years to reach more than 50% of Romania's voters, although penetration in rural areas is still limited.

"Compared to [the last national elections in] 1992, people are more interested in what is going on around them," said Violeta Bau of the nonpartisan Pro-Democracy Assn., which sponsored dozens of town hall meetings with candidates throughout Romania. "They are still not used to acting politically, to talking directly to politicians and getting answers . . . but it is changing. It's a start."

Political participation was unheard of during Ceausescu's time, when a sinister secret intelligence service called the Securitate combined with the dictator's own xenophobic Stalinist policies to oppress this nation of 23 million through fear and isolation.

Ceausescu was toppled in a revolution that many say then became a coup by middle-level Communists, with Iliescu emerging the victor. It was the bloodiest end to communism in Eastern Europe, with an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people killed. Still traumatized and alienated, Romanians were then reluctant to embark on radical change and gave landslide approval to Iliescu in elections in 1990 and 1992.

A former associate of Ceausescu who eventually split with the dictator, Iliescu is now blamed for the slow pace of economic reform that critics say has plunged Romania deeper into poverty. Average salaries have fallen below $100 a month and inflation is topping 45%, sending living standards well below those of nearby Hungary and Poland.

Iliescu, and much of the country, was stunned to see his leftist Social Democrat party finish a distant second in parliamentary voting to a center-right reformist coalition called the Democratic Convention of Romania, led by goateed academic Emil Constantinescu.

Adding insult to injury, Iliescu was forced into a runoff with Constantinescu for a four-year presidential term.

Constantinescu's chances of unseating Iliescu received a significant boost last week when the third-highest vote-getter, Petre Roman and his Social Democratic Union, joined forces with the Democratic Convention. Roman was promised the post of prime minister in exchange for his support.

Iliescu, 66, is using the current campaign to portray himself as the guarantor of stability, the check and balance on the new government. In appearances at factories, shipyards and farming towns, he accuses his opponents of plotting to restore Romania's monarchy and take back property nationalized by the Communist regime.

"Workers, farmers, tenants, Romanians, beware!" warns one of Iliescu's campaign ads. "You will lose your jobs, your land, your homes!"

Speaking at a rally in the central Transylvania region, he told voters that his opponent, if elected, will "establish a real political dictatorship of rightist forces."

*

Constantinescu and his supporters say Iliescu is exploiting unreasonable fears in a desperate ploy to get reelected. They instead focus on the corruption scandals that have plagued the government and emphasize their 180-day emergency plan for reviving the economy.

"Fears, lies and theft no longer have any place in Romania," Constantinescu, 56, told supporters.

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