Prague, June 18 (RFE/RL) - Romanian voters, disenchanted with a sluggish economy, a dropping standard of living, a widening gap between the few rich and the increasingly impoverished masses and suspicious of political corruption, turned their back on the socialist government in Romania's municipal elections which ended on Sunday.
The Socialists have ruled the country since the collapse of communism. Their fall from grace was exemplified by the mayoralty race in the capital, Bucharest, where flamboyant former tennis star Ilie Nastase lost to Victor Ciorbea, who made a campaign virtue of his modest lifestyle.
The 49-year-old Nastase, a political neophyte, joined the government party, the Party of Social Democracy (PDSR), and quickly became the favored candidate for the mayor's post. When the campaign started in April, local opinion polls placed Nastase more than 20 points ahead of Ciorbea.
But when the votes were counted yesterday, the bad boy of tennis finished 14 points behind the candidate for the opposition Democratic Convention (CDR).
After the results were announced. Ciorbea, the 42-year-old trade unionist reportedly showed his first sign of humor. "I thank Nastase for being a candidate, " he said, "Thanks to him, journalists the world over now have their eyes on Bucharest."
Ciorbea had promised to fix the city, where, as Nastase once said, "even the trees look sad." He pledged resurfacing damaged streets, modernizing public transport, refurbishing decrepit schools and hospitals and building a power plant to make winter heat a common comfort rather than a rare luxury.
Independent analysts said Nastase's defeat was a major blow to the ruling party, which saw the municipal elections as a test of the popularity of its economic policies.
But other analysts disagreed. They said that Bucharest has historically been an opposition city. They said Nastase has already proved his value as a big-name candidate for the governing party by effectively winning double the share of the vote the party managed on its own.
Nastase said that he would become a member of the city council. Ciorbea welcomed this and said that Nastase "would be an excellent representative for city hall in an international role."
Romania's President Ion Iliescu was reported to be banking on a Nastase win to boost his own re-election bid in the November national elections.
His main declared rival so far, Emil Constantinescu of the Democratic Convention wasted no time in commenting on the municipal election results. He was quoted as saying yesterday "It is a political defeat for them. But for us and our allies it is a boost toward victory."
Iliescu came to office on December 1989, after communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted but before his execution. Under Iliescu, the PDSR, which includes many former communists, promised Romanians the best of the communist system combined with the freedoms associated with democracy.
Iliescu promised guaranteed housing, medical care and jobs along with the freedom to travel and earn money.
But Silviu Brucan, an active Communist who openly opposed the Ceausescu regime prior to 1989, said while Iliescu managed to succeed in realizing "the contradictory dreams, the illusion failed because the economic disasters are self-evident."
According to the Heritage Group, a U.S. conservative think tank, Romania has one of the highest tax rates in Central Europe, with personal rates climbing up to 60 percent. Restructuring and privatization have stalled and the private sector of the economy produces less than a quarter of the gross domestic product. Government spending continues to outpace economic growth in the country. Privatization has been mostly restricted to the agricultural sector.
The bleak economic record appears to have had an impact on the local election results.
The opposition CDR won 24 of the races in the most important regional towns. Its political allies, the Union of Social Democrats (USD) won eight races, including the cities of Pitesti, Botosani and Bazau. CDR held its power base in Transylvania. The PDSR posted 12 victories, while six of the races were won by independent candidates.
Traditionally strong socialist support in the Romanian province of Moldavia also began to erode as the center-right Civic Alliance Party (PAC) and the CDR both gained administrative posts in local governments in the region. PAC also won the mayoralty race in the important regional town of Iasi.
The Socialists no longer have a monopoly in the south of the country either, with the opposition posting some gains.
The Hungarian Minority Party (UDMR) dominated in the central regions of the country, including Mures, Harghita and Cavasna, where ethnic Hungarians remain a strong political force.
But while the opposition made most of its gains in larger cities, rural Romania remains a socialist strong-hold.
The national elections, which combine a presidential and parliamentary vote, are slated for Nov. 3. Those results will show whether Romanians are ready to turn to the right, or if they were simply sending a message of discontent to the government during the municipal vote.