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Romania: Finally, A Break With The Communist Past

Prague, 18 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - Seven years after the overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, Romania's voters have finally completed their break with the nation's communist past.

They did so yesterday in a run-off ballot for president by decisively refusing a third term to Ion Iliescu, a former Communist high official who has led the country since 1990. In Iliescu's place, they elected Christian Democrat leader Emil Constantinescu, who ran as the head of a multi-party Center-Right coalition known as the Democratic Convention.

Yesterday's vote came two weeks after the reformist Democratic Convention won a plurality of votes in parliamentary elections. Iliescu's Social Democracy Party, which included many ex-Communists, finished a distant second. Coming in third in the general elections was the left-of-center Social Democratic Union led by former premier Petre Roman, who was dismissed by Iliescu several years ago.

Soon after the parliamentary vote, Roman joined forces with the Democratic Convention and asked his supporters to vote for Constantinescu. Some reports at the time said Roman had been promised a high post, perhaps even the premiership, in a new Center-Left government coalition. Leaders of most other major parties, including the group representing Romania's large ethnic Hungarian minority, trade unions and other organizations also supported Constantinescu's election.

The successful rallying of most groups opposed to Iliescu ensured a strong Constantinescu victory. Official figures released this morning showed that, with four-fifths of the ballots counted, the Christian Democrat had received 55 percent of the vote to Iliescu's 45 percent. Final results are expected early tomorrow.

Until now, Romania was the only country in Eastern Europe's former Soviet bloc in which the anti-communist opposition had not been given a turn in power. Some Romanian commentators say that this month's voting represents the first time ever that the country has peacefully and democratically elected an opposition to power, although there were free elections in Romania in 1928.

They say, too, that the peaceful transfer of power reflects not only a newly efficient and sophisticated opposition, but also an aggressively free media, growing anger at miserable economic conditions and a fading image of Iliescu as the savior who ousted the dread Ceaucescu.

Iliescu and other former Communist officials took power in the confusion following Ceausescu's execution in December 1989. Since then, they have kept the country's centralized economy -- and its state security apparatus -- largely unreformed. The result has been numerous corruption scandals, low foreign investment in the country, an average monthly wage that has fallen below $100 a month, an inflation rate of 45 percent, and living standards well below those now prevailing in neighboring countries such as Hungary and Poland.

In addition to its backward economy, Romania has also lagged behind other Central European nations in creating a solid democracy -- a key ingredient for former Soviet bloc countries seeking to join NATO and the European Union. It was one of the last countries in the area to be accepted for membership in the Council of Europe, which oversees democratic and human-rights standards on the continent.

Constantinescu, who will be 57 tomorrow, is a law graduate and former geologist. He made a virtue out of his lack of political experience during the presidential campaign by pointing out he was untainted by the numerous scandals that enveloped Iliescu and his cohorts during their years in power. As a professor, Constantinescu first came to public notice when he took part in street demonstrations alongside students during the December 1989 uprising. Four years ago, he made a first, unsuccessful attempt to unseat Iliescu.

But this time Constantinescu showed he was no political novice. Overcoming his soft-spoken, professorial demeanor, he ran an aggressive U.S.-style campaign, fiercely attacking corruption and offering a "Contract with Romania" that promised rapid social, economic and political reforms. He also promised a complete break with the past, strengthened democratic institutions, closer ties with the West and a revival of religion in a country that has been officially atheist for 45 years.

Early this morning, addressing enthusiastic Bucharest supporters, Constantinescu also pledged to work for national reconciliation. "The time for hatred has passed," he said. "There will be no persecution, no punishment. We are going to build, not to destroy."