BUCHAREST, ROMANIA — Anticipation was in the air at Primary School Number 174, where voters from Bucharest's dour Militara district gathered to cast their ballots.
At the nearby metro station entrance, stray dogs competed with homeless children for the charity of returning workers, who themselves teeter on the edge of survival.
Like voters in cities and towns across Romania, residents of Militara were voting for change in the Nov. 3 general election.
After 50 years of communist and neocommunist rule, Romanians appear to be demanding an end to the feudal and corrupt party-state bureaucracy that President Ion Iliescu and his Social Democratic Party of Romania (PDSR) have worked so hard to maintain.
"Prices are going up, our salaries are staying the same, and we're barely surviving," says a middle-age factory worker to the approval of surrounding voters. "We must have change because things can't go on like this."
"There will be a positive change for Romania, but just how positive is hard to say," comments Michael Shafir, Romania analyst for the Prague-based Open Media Research Institute. "Without substantive change, the gap between Romania and the leading East European countries will continue to grow."
The stakes are particularly high in these elections, since voters are choosing a president and members of both houses of the national legislature.
With more than half of the returns tallied on Nov. 5, Mr. Iliescu had received 33 percent of the vote in the race for president. This contrasts greatly with the 48 percent he received in 1992's first round of presidential elections.
University professor Emil Constantinescu, who leads the opposition Democratic Convention - a center-right alliance of opposition parties - had won 28 percent of the vote. Former Premier Petre Roman was third with 21 percent.
As the top two candidates in the presidential race, Iliescu and Mr. Constantinescu will face each other in a second ballot on Nov. 17. Many observers expect those who voted for Mr. Roman and smaller opposition groups to throw their support behind Constantinescu in the runoff, spelling defeat for Iliescu.
In parliamentary elections, the future looks even more bleak for Iliescu's PDSR. The preliminary count gave the Democratic Convention 30 percent of the seats in the race for the senate and Chamber of Deputies. The PDSR was several points behind with 22 percent of the vote in each race. Roman's Social Democratic Union (USD) was third with about 13 percent.
Final results for all three races are expected Nov. 6, and monitors suggest no serious electoral abuse.
"We have seen no evidence of electoral fraud," says Violeta Bau, press officer for Pro-Democratia, an independent election monitoring group. Many political observers had expressed concern that the PDSR might try to falsify the election results.
WHILE it appears that the PDSR will no longer dominate Romanian politics, it remains to be seen if the opposition will be able to dismantle Romania's onerous party-state apparatus or willing to undertake long-delayed economic reforms.
The economy is staggering under the weight of hundreds of obsolete, unprofitable communist-era industrial firms. Privatization has stalled, and private business owners report having to pay bribes to everyone from the mailman to justice officials.
"If put on the right track, this country has enormous economic potential," says US Ambassador Alfred Moses. "There is rich farmland and an energy sector that could one day make the country self-sufficient instead of being energy import dependent."
Yet because of the political and economic obstacles, it remains to be seen if Romanians will get the change they have voted for.