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Romania: Political Opposition Splits Into Factions

Prague, 23 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Romania's Social Democrats (PDSR), the country's main opposition party, split this weekend at the conclusion of its national conference as prominent representatives of its reformist wing were either expelled or forced to resign.

Tensions in the party came into the open well ahead of the gathering, the first major conclave of the PDSR after it lost election in late 1996.

The PDSR chairman, former President Ion Iliescu, formally became the leader of the party only after loosing the presidential contest to Emil Constantinescu. It is an open secret, however, that before 1996 the party was headed in all but name by Iliescu, who, as president of the country, was constitutionally prevented from being a party member.

But, after the PDSR lost its parliamentary majority, Iliescu rather than assuming responsibility for the loss assumed the leadership of the PDSR. There were of course some other party leaders who, while playing second-fiddle to Iliescu, could also be regarded as responsible for the party's recent failure. Among these, no one was more prominent than Adrian Nastase, executive chairman of the PDSR since 1992 and its first vice chairman after Iliescu's assumption of the party's leadership. Perhaps nothing contributed more to the poor PDSR performance in 1996 than Nastase's (justified or unjustified) image of a thoroughly corrupt politician.

Last week, on the eve of the conference, a reformist group in the PDSR, calling itself the "Opinion Group for the Transformation of the PDSR," issued a manifesto demanding the change in the party. Headed by former Foreign Minister Teodor Melescanu, the group included several "newcomers" to the party, who had been promoted to leading positions in the PDSR on the eve of the last elections by Iliescu himself, in an attempt to polish the party's image. These included former Deputy Prime Minister Mircea Cosea, Iosif Boda, a former ambassador to Switzerland, Marian Enache, a former ambassador to Moldova and the economist Viorel Salagean.

In addition to the demands that the PDSR rid itself of corrupt members and force those responsible for the party's electoral defeat to assume responsibility, the group also demanded that the party move ideologically from the Left to the Center-Left, emulating, as Melescanu put it, the British Labor leader Tony Blair.

But the opposite happened at the National Conference. Iliescu understood only too well that the demands of the group would ultimately affect his own position in the party. The group was not even allowed to present its platform. And Iliescu rejected Melescanu's last-minute "compromise proposal" that neither the pro-reform group, nor Nastase and those identified as his cronies run for leadership positions.

At a preparatory PDSR regional conference before the national meeting Melescanu was proposed to replace Iliescu himself. Iliescu reacted as a traditional communist politician. He mounted an unrestrained attack on Boda in early June -- Iliescu himself subsequently described the attack as "Bolshevik-like." He also made a rather strange statement that newcomers to the PDSR should do better to "work at grass root level" than criticize the leadership that had co-opted them. And he strongly attacked, in a typical "democratic centralist" fashion, "party factionalism."

Melescanu was thus left with no other choice but announcing that he was leaving the PDSR. He did so two days ago at a press conference. He was seconded by Mircea Cosea. Two other members of the group, Boda and Salagean, had been expelled from the party on the eve of the conference, while Enache had preceded Melescanu in submitting a voluntary resignation. Furthermore, Mugurel Vintila, a deputy representing the PDSR in parliament who, though not a member of Melescanu's group, is also a partisan of radical reform, also resigned from the party.

The resignations leave the PDSR's representation in the legislature significantly weakened (all but Salagean being parliamentarians), for it is unlikely that the members of the group will follow the call of Iliescu -- re-elected chairman with an overwhelming majority -- that they resign from the parliament. Melescanu already said that he will not join other parties, but hoped to set up a new political entity.

It seems that history repeats itself in Romania. What happened at the PDSR National Conference is almost carbon-copied from the developments that led to the "divorce" between Iliescu's conservative group and the reformist group headed by Petre Roman at the 1992 conference of the National Salvation Front.

Iliescu now remains at the helm, with Nastase as first-vice chairman and with former political ally-turned enemy-and current ally once again, extremist Greater Romania Party leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor.

Tudor attended the PDSR gathering and expressed regrets for having earlier attacked Iliescu. The audience applauded delighted. But it remains to be seen whether the "born again red-brown alliance" will equally meet with electoral approval in the year 2,000.

Meanwhile, an alliance between Melescanu and Roman's Democratic Party appears possible.