ION PUIU is a fighter. As a leader of the banned National Peasants Party, he never stopped battling Romania's Communist rulers during four long decades. His opposition brought him long years in jail, frequent house arrests, and countless police interrogations. A vigorous man at age 70, with a sharply angled face and a shock of white hair, the tall, spare-looking Mr. Puiu still is fighting today. He and his Peasants Party hope to win power in Romania's elections, scheduled for April. Their platform includes parliamentary democracy, a market economy, and - most of all - the return of the Soviet republic of Moldavia to Romanian control. It was taken away from Romania during World War II.
``I was born in Moldavia, and I will never forget that the people there speak Romanian, they are Romanians,'' he says. ``They must come back to their mother country.''
After the emotion of revolution throughout Eastern Europe comes the important, if mundane, task of building strong parliamentary structures through the ballot box.
The test could prove most difficult in Romania, where the Communists under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu monopolized power with special greed. Opposition leaders were not just persecuted; they were crushed. The police repression was such that the formation of even a nucleus of a future opposition movement was almost impossible.
Since Ceausescu's downfall, a dozen or so new parties have sprouted up, most with weak foundations. The new Green Party operates out of the apartment of one of its founders. It counts 50 members.
Another party, the so-called Anti-totalitarian Forum, boasts it was created before the revolution. It numbered three families. (``It was impossible to be any larger,'' the group's leader, Viorel Hancu, says. ``If we took anybody else in, it would have endangered the group to the Securitate [secret police].'')
Puiu's National Peasants are a bit better off. The party's roots go back to prewar Romania, where, as in other East European countries, a large proportion of the population was involved in farming, producing a strong political base for peasant-based parties with right-wing, nationalist ideologies.
Puiu joined the party in 1932. After World War II, he became the party's youth leader. In 1946, he won a parliamentary seat. But he, along with his fellow party members, refused to take his seat out of protest against the election's irregularities. In the spring of 1947, the party leaders were arrested, and the party banned. Taken into custody and tried for treason, Puiu spent the next 15 years in prison.
He emerged defiant and unbroken. With little success, he tried to rebuild the old Peasants Party. By the 1980s, he was one of the only original party leaders still alive. His opinions were aired by Radio Free Europe and attracted some attention.
``I heard about Mr. Puiu from the radio and was impressed by his courage,'' recalls 27-year-old Radu Auer, now the leader of the party's youth branch. ``But when I tried to visit him at his apartment, the police stopped me.''
On the second day of the revolution, Puiu's police guards vanished into the night. Along with a couple of old comrades, Puiu immediately began rebuilding the old party. He chose not to join the new National Salvation Front, out of loyalty to the Peasants Party ideals and disgust for the old Communists who were taking over the front's leadership.
``For Ceausescu, two plus two equaled seven. For the Communists in the front, two plus two equals five,'' he says. ``I will only accept two plus two equaling four.''
His battle for truth is an uphill struggle. Of all the opposition parties, the Peasants are the only one that had managed to acquire office space and telephones by mid-January. It works out of a former Communist Party ideological institute abandoned after the revolution. The offices are bare, without typewriters, copiers, or any of the other materials associated with running a campaign. To make copies, party officials must go around the block to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Puiu complains that the Peasants and other opposition parties are being denied access to radio and television, which are in the hands of the front. The Peasants will start their own paper, but it will take time for them to find the necessary newsprint, hire the reporters, and set up distribution.
A national congress took place early last month, but it also will take the party more time to set up its organization throughout the country. For all these reasons, Puiu and other Peasant leaders would like to see a delay in the scheduled April vote.
``The front has access to all the old Communist Party structures, to the money, the media needed to run an election campaign,'' complains Valantin Gabrielescu, another Peasants Party leader. ``We need some time - let's say until August or September, to get across our message.''
The content of that message also will be difficult to determine. For moderates like Gabrielescu, the issue of Moldavia should be secondary.
``For all Romanians, not only for us in the party, Moldavia remains dear to our heart,'' he says. ``But we must be conscious of our geopolitical position and hope to work this problem out carefully, as the Soviet Union and Romania become democratic countries.''
Ever combative, Puiu disagrees. To him, Moldavia represents the most important issue, even more important than democracy.
``Moldavia is an open wound for Romania,'' he concludes. ``It comes before democracy, before economic prosperity. It comes before everything.''