FOR the first time in more than 50 years, Romanians will vote Sunday for the leader who will run their country. Ion Iliescu, Romania's interim president and presidential candidate for the National Salvation Front, leads the polls and appears assured of a landslide victory.
For most Romanians, Mr. Iliescu is ``one of us,'' says Florin Ionitse, who works for a foreign trade company. He waves a paper red rose, the emblem of the party and of socialism in Europe, above the crowd gathered for a Front political rally.
At the parliamentary level, the ballot paper, which lists 82 registered parties, will look like a phone book. The National Salvation Front's candidates are also expected to gain the majority in most of the parliaments of the country's 40 provinces.
For many Romanians, the Front represents the incarnation of the revolution that ended Nicolae Ceausescu's dictatorship.
``The Front was with us on Dec. 22. It fought for the Romanian people,'' Nicolae Moroianu, a Front supporter, explained at a rally two weeks ago. ``Where were the other ones then?''
Iliescu's opponents will be Radu Campeanu, candidate of the National Liberal Party, and Ion Ratiu of the National Peasant Party. They both arrived in Romania after Dec. 22, 1989. Mr. Campeanu has lived in France since 1973. Mr. Ratiu has been in Britain for the past 50 years.
Under pressure from demonstrators, the Front agreed in early February to share power. The Provisional Council for National Unity became Romania's interim government, incorporating representatives of both the Front and the opposition parties. After its controversial decision to run as a political party in the May 20 elections, the original National Salvation Front officially dissolved.
Yet, while popular with many voters, the Front is condemned by many intellectuals, who say it is little more than a continuation of the Ceausescu dictatorship.
Opposition protests continue in the capital in support of the Timosoara Proclamation, which includes a demand that ex-members of the nomenklatura be prohibited from running for political office for the next 10 years.
The Front has also been accused of disrupting political rallies by the opposition, of intimidating members of the opposition who try to set up offices in villages, and of ransacking existing offices in the provinces. The Front denies the allegations.
Throughout its campaign, the Front has reassured its supporters that the social costs of economic reforms will be minimized by a Frontist government, similar in its approach to the social democracies of Sweden or Austria.
For workers listening to Iliescu's speeches, the Front offers a guarantee against massive unemployment.
``Most of the workers understand that the Front wants change without creating major social tensions and that any change will be gradual and will be performed after careful examination,'' pro-Front Ovidiu Msetescu says in his office in the largest factory here.
After the revolution, the Front's popularity was increased by the economic measures it introduced. Food started appearing on Romanian tables as the Front abolished the export of agricultural products that the late dictator Ceausescu used to repay the country's foreign debt. The price of electricity was reduced and gasoline rationing removed.
``Iliescu gave us food and heat. In a country where a common joke was that windows should not be opened lest passersby catch a cold, you can imagine how important that is,'' provincial Front official Romeo Cornescu says.
For the first time in Romanian history, workers were allowed to work a five-day week. Miners were granted a six-hour day. In February, when the Front was under attack for having decided to run in the elections, the miners came storming to Bucharest to defend it. According to Front economist Ion Ilie, more than 60 billion lei were distributed in pensions and compensations.
In the agricultural domain, improvements were quickly introduced. Animal feed was distributed to farmers and state acquisition prices for agricultural goods were doubled. The Front has also returned 1,000 square meters of arable land per person to those with historical claims on land. Although the land must first be farmed for two years before property rights are regained, this measure has had an important impact on the minds of voters.