IN recent Romanian elections, the most anticommunist people in Eastern Europe had the chance to get rid of communism and apparently missed it. Instead of overwhelmingly defeating the neo-Bolshevik National Salvation Front (FSN) led by veteran apparatchik Ion Iliescu, most Romanians gave him and his party the benefit of the doubt. The opposition suffered a major defeat and the front is ecstatic about its presidential candidate's triumph with almost 90 percent of the national vote. How can one make sense of this situation?
The secret of the FSN's landslide lies in systematically crafted ambiguities about this party's real attitude toward communism. According to statements made by Mr. Iliescu, Prime Minister Petre Roman, and chief ideologue Silviu Brucan, the FSN does not have anything to do with the abhorred Romanian Communist Party of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. On the contrary, according to this self-serving mythology, the FSN embodies the purest dreams of the anti-communist upheaval that swept away Ceausescu.
In the aftermath of the revolution, Iliescu and his comrades have gone out of their way to persuade Romanians that their most sacred wish was to turn the country into a Western-style parliamentary regime. As for communism, Iliescu maintained, it was a political corpse.
Rhetorical anticommunism, therefore, was the front's propaganda device to deprive its opponents of their most powerful weapon. Pretending that it symbolized the antitotalitarian aspirations of the Romanians and denying its communist pedigree, the front killed two birds with one stone: It reassured the beleaguered party and state bureaucracy that no danger loomed for them if Iliescu won the election. And it provided the front with the broad electoral base it needed among social groups hostile to communism but anguished by the leap into the unknown represented by a market economy.
The front claimed to be the party of stability and social peace. This impersonation - the front's denial of its neo-communist beliefs and its posturing as a champion of pluralism - contributed to widespread confusion during pre-election months.
But this deception alone was not enough to completely delude all Romanians. On the contrary, many were incensed by this cynical travesty. In March, a gathering of thousands in Timisoara - the cradle of the revolution - adopted a proclamation demanding a ban on former party bureaucrats and Securitate officers in forthcoming elections. The proclamation was soon adopted by hundreds of grass-roots associations.
On April 22, thousands of students in Bucharest seized University Square and organized an anti-Iliescu sit-in. The interim president lost his temper and called his young critics ``tramps.'' This in turn prompted prominent intellectuals to join the protesters in University Square and proudly call themselves ``tramps.''
The nervousness of besieged FSN functionaries was increasingly visible. Front-controlled TV and radio offered biased coverage of University Square meetings. Paid thugs were sent to disband gatherings organized by the opposition parties. The government-controlled mail service refused to distribute anti-front publications. Security police files were opened to find compromising information against opposition figures.
The resulting polarization made many Romanians doubtful about their country's future. The two major opposition parties - the National Peasants and the National Liberals - lacked infrastructure and know-how. Add to this the countless acts of intimidation and harassment organized by the government against its rivals, and one gets an accurate picture of the country's predicament. For many Romanians, voting for the Front appeared the only alternative to anarchy. Promising job security and increased food supplies, the FSN managed to assuage many misgivings about its revolutionary credentials.
What is in store for Romania? First, one should realize that this defeat of the opposition, painful as it is, does not necessarily mean a long-term victory for the FSN. After all, the front is a heterogeneous political formation unable to formulate more than nebulous demagogical pledges about an impossible cornucopia. Second, it is hard to imagine a return to any form of dictatorship. Romanians have acquired the taste of freedom and they will not allow the front to establish a monopoly of power. The Timisoara proclamation and the University Square demonstrations say more about Romania's future than the front's soothing phrases of national reconciliation.
As the economic situation worsens, the FSN government will be held responsible. The Front's victory was therefore Pyrrhic. Under pressure from below, sooner rather than later, new elections will take place in Romania. Meanwhile, new parties will emerge and the front will eventually disintegrate under the burden of its own lies and illusions.