Romanians ready to give Iliescu another chance

Ulhas Joglekar ulhasj at
Sat Nov 25 19:22:50 MST 2000

22 November 2000

Romanians ready to give Iliescu another chance
BUCHAREST: Graffiti calling on Romanians to oust left-winger Ion Iliescu as
president can still be seen on some Bucharest buildings -- a reminder of the
1996 election when cheering thousands greeted a centrist victory.
Four years later, Romanians, who saw their hopes for a better life collapse
under the centrists, appear ready for a journey back in time by voting for
Iliescu and his party in elections on Sunday (November 26).
Emil Constantinescu was elected president and a centrist alliance won the
1996 parliamentary poll on promises of swift economic change and membership
of the European Union and NATO.
The result was a disaster.
Major reforms failed; foreign investors did not show up and the coalition
government was plagued by endless bickering, reshuffles and failure to get a
firm grip on the economy.
Romania is the last in the line of countries aspiring to join the European
Union. This month, the EU said fast reforms were needed because Romania did
not have a functioning market economy.
"Initially, the centrists hoped that they could devise a sound strategy and
complement each other in dealing with economic reforms and social
protection," said Dorel Sandor, analyst with the Bucharest-based Centre for
Political Studies.
"But their stands were most of the time contradictory. This created
political instability, confusion and seriously eroded their credibility.
Voters perceive them now as inefficient and hopeless," Sandor told Reuters.
Iliescu, 70, and his Party of Social Democracy (PDSR), are poised to win
both the presidency and a majority of seats in parliament after November 26.
Polls show Iliescu, who ruled Romania from 1990 to 1996, favoured by 47
percent of voters, eclipsing his main rival, the centrist Prime Minister
Mugur Isarescu, on 13 per cent.
Polls also suggest that the Christian Democrats, once the backbone of the
centrist coalition, are scoring so poorly that they will not make it to
parliament after Sunday's elections.
In Bucharest, centrist campaigners prefer to put up election posters job
during the night to avoid the jeers of passers-by.
"The failure of reforms was due mainly to the opposition of post-communist
bureaucrats, who dominate the infrastructure, to implement change," said
political analyst Emil Hurezeanu.
Reform moves had often clashed with the agendas of some parties in the
centrist coalition and this resulted in incoherent and confusing governing
policies, he added.
Analysts say the slight economic recovery recorded since Isarescu took
office 11 months ago has come too late to be felt by ordinary people.
Nostalgia for a time when "money was money and the price of loaf of bread
next week was the same as this week" is overwhelming in the poverty-stricken
country of 22 million.
"Life was much better under Iliescu. I had enough money to buy food, shoes
and medicines," said Ion Vranca, a pensioner in frayed clothing, looking
enviously at the stalls in a Bucharest market heaped with fruit, meat and
other food.
"Now I have nothing. I'm so poor that I can't afford even to buy a coffin
for when I die. I will vote for Iliescu," he said.
Vranca's words and the scene could be repeated anywhere in Romania today.
"It seems that illusions which once helped Romanians to put up with their
poverty have all died," Sandor said.
Statistics reinforce the grim story -- some 40 percent of Romanians live
below the official poverty line.
Tens of thousands have cheered Iliescu during his electoral rallies across
the country in recent weeks. His programme opposes shock-therapy policies
involving big lay-offs and the closure of inefficient industries.
"Iliescu's left-wing populism is very appealing to those who have lost all
hope. But many of his promises are idealistic and only serve to bait a
population already disillusioned with other promises," said a Western
Many Romanians want democracy, analysts say, but they also want the state to
be a provider and political leaders to be paternalistic and strong -- a
pattern established by the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, executed in a
bloody 1989 revolt.
"Unfortunately, Romania's political tradition demands an image of a strong,
Ceausescu-type, leader. When he took office, Constantinescu had good
intentions. But that was not enough," Hurezeanu said.
"Many voters want to see the image of a strongman. And they turn back to
Iliescu," he said.
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