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Former Tennis Star Seeks To Be Mayor of Bucharest

Bucharest, April 10 (RFE/RL) - What started as a joke between friends of former Romanian tennis star Ilie Nastase has now become serious. The man once famous for his unconventional activities on and off the tennis court, wants to start a political career by becoming Mayor of Bucharest in the elections this summer.

The election campaign officially opened today. Nastase is the candidate of the government party, the Party of Social Democracy (PDSR), which supports President ion Iliescu.

A local opinion poll, IRSOP, recently found that the former tennis star could win around 47 per cent of the vote - almost twice as many as the second-placed Victor Ciorbea, who is the candidate for the main opposition group, the Democratic Convention. There are about eight other candidates to become mayor of the capital

Nastase says himself that the idea of running for mayor started towards the end of last year when business friends were joking about what he could do to mark his 50th birthday this year. But a few leading figures in the PDSR took up the idea and persuaded him to run. Nastase joined the party late last year and almost immediately became a member of the Presidium.

Among those said to have played an important role in his decision was his former Davis Cup tennis partner, Ion Tiriac, who is now one of Romania's most successful businessmen with close ties to the PDSR.

The current mayor on Bucharest is Crin Halaicu, who won election in 1992 with broad promises of honest government and rebuilding roads and services. His political enemies now accuse him of inactivity, corruption and nepotism.

Opinion polls are notoriously unreliable in Romania but western diplomats in Bucharest believe Nastase could do well despite his lack of political experience. "Most voters realize he knows nothing about the administration of a city like Bucharest with more than two million people," a diplomat said. "But he is perceived as someone with an international reputation who could publicize the city and possibly bring in the foreign investment which Bucharest certainly needs." Some believe that Nastase, who is married to an American actress, Alexandra King, could bring a touch of glamour to what is generally a depressed city.

Nastase himself tends to build on this view. He says he is really running because of his love for Bucharest. "Look out the window," he said recently to a correspondent. "Even the trees look sad in Romania."

"I spent 20 years in Romania and 30 years abroad," he says. "It is a good combination. I understand my own country and I have also good ideas which I picked-up abroad." He is vague on the details. He wants to improve the pot-holed streets, improve the schools and generally campaign against misery and poverty. How he will do this and how it will be funded remains unclear.

Romania is a country of huge economic differences. At one level are millionaire businessmen like Tiriac. At another are academics with doctorates who earn the equivalent of 65 U.S. dollars a month. Thousands of workers earn even less.

Nastase says he wants to be a non-political Mayor of Bucharest. "I am not interested in party politics," he says. According to him he would prefer to run as an Independent. He says he had to abandon this idea when he realized that to win a political campaign he needed the support of an experienced political organization - "particularly because I don't have much political experience."

But he says he still believes he can run Bucharest as a non-partisan city manager rather than as a politician beholden to specific party interests.

At least some people in Bucharest believe his lack of political experience could even be a blessing. "Someone without political experience is also not politically-compromised," said one man.

Nastase is popularly believed to have amassed quite a lot of money from tennis, although his business ventures are certainly less successful than those of his tennis partner Tiriac. At least some believe his money may also be a plus-point. They suggest that if he already has money he is not seeking to be mayor for material reasons.