Romanian president likely to win re-election today Despite harsh economy, former Communist Iliescu leads in bid for 3rd term


BUCHAREST, Romania -- After seven years as president, Ion Iliescu of Romania is up for re-election today and, according to polls, is likely to win a third term, even though he has preserved many elements of Romania's Communist past.

How Iliescu has been able to hold on to power in the face of a precipitous drop in living standards is a puzzle.

He has shown little of the flexibility of other former Communists, such as Prime Minister Gyula Horn in Hungary, or President Aleksander Kwasniewski in Poland.

Iliescu, 66, is a former high-ranking Communist and close aide to the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and has preserved many elements of the past.

Romanians offer a variety of explanations that range from the weakness of a fractious opposition to what they call the inherent conservatism of many Romanians.

Silviu Brucan, Romanian ambassador to Washington during the 1950s, said that Iliescu owes his tenure to Romanians' fear of change and the upheavals associated with capitalism.

Many Romanians, inured by a tough past, were willing to suffer severe levels of poverty, he suggested.

"He has a chiefly conservative constituency," said Brucan, who has criticized Iliescu for his handling of the economy and for retaining elements of the secret police from the time of Ceausescu, who was overthrown and executed in 1989.

"There are four million members of the former Communist Party and their families who are afraid of retribution," he said. "There are workers in the big plants whose products have no markets who are afraid of unemployment. There are those who are renting apartments who are afraid the opposition will overturn the law on nationalization of property. And there are the people in the old state structures in the regions."

In the capital and in some of the bigger cities, though, Iliescu's popularity has plunged.

During a campaign rally at a tractor plant in Brasov, north of Bucharest, last week, Iliescu was confronted with angry protesters carrying placards reading "Enough of Your Humbug."

"We have disastrous living conditions," said a retired army colonel, Ion Popescu, 64, as he browsed among the second-hand books on outdoor tables near the University of Bucharest last week. "We can't afford anything but minimal survival."

As the piles of books in the nearby newspaper stand attested, Romanians can now read what they like -- or, at least, what they can afford.

But the government controls the only nationwide television station, through which it broadcasts a dreary diet of circumscribed news and out-of-date entertainment.

Iliescu has done little to dismantle the centralized economy. At outmoded state-run steel, chemical and fertilizer plants, workers cling to jobs at 75 percent of full pay.

The average pay in Romania is $100 a month, one-third of that in Poland.

The health care system is regarded as the worst in Central Europe.

In parliamentary elections, which will also be held today, Iliescu's governing Party of Social Democracy, made up of former Communists, trails in the polls.

Opinion polls indicate that a coalition of opposition parties, which bill themselves as proponents of market reforms, are likely to form the next government.

One of the reasons for Iliescu's reluctance to change the old system seems to stem from his strict Communist background.

He came from an impoverished family, but as a bright student was sent to the University of Moscow to specialize in hydroelectricity. He returned to Romania to take full-time positions in the Communist Party's hierarchy -- first as head of the youth movement and then as head of propaganda in the Politburo.

The early 1970s, when Iliescu criticized Ceausescu's support of North Korea, he was sidelined from the innermost party circles and sent to head up party secretariats in the cities of Jassy and Timisoara.

To run for president a third time, Iliescu interpreted the law in a way the opposition disputes.

The new Romanian Constitution of 1991 states that a president fTC may run for office no more than twice.

Iliescu was chosen as president by the Communist-led National Salvation Front immediately after Ceausescu's execution in December 1989.

In 1990, he was elected president with 85 percent of the vote. In 1992, he was re-elected president and in August this year announced he would run again on an anti-corruption platform.

Opposition parties challenged Iliescu's right to run again, but the Constitutional Court ruled in his favor, saying his first election, in 1990, took place before the new constitutional rule was adopted.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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