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Romania: Citizens Leaning Left Ahead Of Sunday's Vote

Romanians are voting this weekend to elect a new president and parliament. Even as the country nudges closer to the European Union and NATO on the basis of the outgoing government's centrist program, its citizens, still languishing in poverty, are favoring a return to power of the left-leaning parties. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc reports.

Prague, 24 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Romanians on Sunday go to the polls for the fourth time since the fall of Communism in 1989 to elect their next president and parliament.

Almost 18 million registered voters will choose from among 20,000 candidates from 49 parties competing for the 467-seat two-chamber parliament. And 12 presidential hopefuls are battling to replace President Emil Constantinescu, who in July announced he will not run for re-election.

But the choice may not be as wide as it appears, since the four leading presidential candidates all -- to some extent -- took part in the leftist governments that led Romania from 1990 until 1996. And three of the parties expected to make it into parliament are spin-offs of the ex-communist National Salvation Front that took power after the violent ouster of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989.

Romania has a hybrid presidential-parliamentary system under which the parliament has broad legislative and executive powers, while the president oversees foreign and defense policy.

Polls say the leading candidate is former president Ion Iliescu, an ex-communist who led the country for almost seven years before being replaced in 1996 by outgoing president Emil Constantinescu. Constantinescu and a center-right coalition came to power on a promise to speed up reform and bring the country closer to the West.

Iliescu, who is 70, is riding a wave of popular discontent caused by rising poverty, rampant corruption and half-hearted reforms. The latest polls show him and his leftist Social Democracy Party favored by about 40 percent of voters. A vote of at least 50 percent is needed to win the election outright. If no candidate gets that, the top two vote-getters face each other in a run-off 10 December.

Iliescu argues the pace of reforms undertaken to bring the country closer to the European Union has been too rapid and left people without jobs, struggling to make ends meet. A skilled politician, he has turned the discontent to his advantage, even though he and his party are at least in part responsible for the failure of the reforms during his previous seven years in power.

Iliescu said RFE/RL he would slow down reforms to lessen their impact on citizens, but in principle, he is not against economic reform and privatization:

"Our position is not to halt the privatization process, but to give it a rational basis and turn it into a tool necessary for relaunching the economy."

Romanian citizens have reason to be unhappy with the economy. Annual inflation is running at 45 percent and unemployment hovers around 11 percent. Poverty affects some 40 percent of Romania's 22 million people and the average monthly salary is -- at $100 -- among the lowest in Europe.

International experts argue, however, that Romania's economic reforms -- far from being too rapid -- have been slow and haphazard.

This is especially true, they say, concerning the sell-off of loss- making state companies. Only a third of the economy is in private hands, with banking, oil and energy sectors still controlled by the state.

Second in the polls is ultranationalist Corneliu Vadim Tudor and his Greater Romania Party, with support of about 20 percent of voters. Vadim Tudor, one of Ceausescu's former court poets, is notorious for his anti-Hungarian, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma stance.

He casts himself to voters as an authoritarian leader who will eliminate corruption. As he tells RFE/RL:

"Nobody should be afraid of the rising to power of an authoritarian man -- but deeply moral and righteous, as I like to believe I am, owing to the education my parents gave me. It's the thieves and the gangsters who should be afraid." Two other candidates are seen as having a chance of making it into a run-off: current Prime Minister Mugur Isarescu and former Prime Minister Theodor Stolojan. Both consider themselves to be moderate, Western-oriented technocrats.

Isarescu is running as an independent, supported by some right-wing parties in the ruling coalition. He is a former head of the central bank.

Since being named prime minister in January, Isarescu has managed to put Romania's economy on track after years of recession. Gross domestic product is set to grow this year by 1.5 percent while both exports and imports are on the rise. But the results of his policies have yet to be felt by most Romanians.

Isarescu says if elected he will continue to push ahead with reforms:

"I simply propose a European model for Romania, a model to which we belong. I also propose perseverance and a serious approach toward fulfilling our goal: the model of the EU, where we want to belong."

Stolojan, a former World Bank employee, is running for the center-right National Liberal Party. He also emphasizes fighting poverty and corruption:

"Corruption is an obstacle to Romania's development. It is much more serious than knowing we have some corrupt people. A third of budget is spent on interest paid on internal debt caused by attempts to bail out banks where corruption led to such results."

But, as a former prime minister under Iliescu, Stolojan is remembered by many for his 1992 decision to confiscate hard currency held in private hands in order to bolster the country's currency reserves. Observers say this may hurt him in the polls.

In the race for parliament, polls show Iliescu's PDSR leading, followed by Tudor's PRM. The liberals are also likely to gain the 5 percent support needed for accession, as are center-left Democrat Party of Foreign Minister Petre Roman and the Alliance for Romania -- both spin-offs of Iliescu's PDSR. The ethnic Hungarian party has permanently had a stable 6 percent of the vote, based on the ethnic Hungarian vote.

The right-wing Democratic Convention of Romania, an alliance led by the main governing National Peasant Party, may be in danger of losing a place in parliament, since polls show it well below the 10 percent threshold necessary for alliances.

Observers say if this happens it will be the first time since the fall of Communism that parliament lacks a credible center-right faction.