THE long, hot political summer ended Thursday night in Romania with the final debate of six presidential candidates. Two contenders lead the polls ahead of the Sunday vote.
One is President Ion Iliescu, who overwhelmingly won the first free elections in Romania in May 1990, five months after the overthrow and execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Mr. Iliescu's main opponent is Emil Constantinescu, the rector of Bucharest University and a member of the Democratic Convention, the main opposition coalition.
The Convention scored a success during local elections, held last February, when the opposition broke the governing National Salvation Front's monopoly over the local administration by getting 24 percent of the vote.
The Front, which won 65 percent of the vote in 1990, did no better than 34 percent in February. This loss of dominance, combined with a dispute between its leaders, former Prime Minister Petre Roman and Iliescu, resulted in a separation.
Supporters of Iliescu, a former high-ranking Communist turned Social-Democrat, left the NSF in April to form the Democratic National Salvation Front (DNSF). They are now the main political force backing Iliescu's bid for a second term.
Iliescu, often regarded as the representative of the old Communist nomenklatura, also gained the support of the Socialist Party of Work (SPW), the official heir of the former Romanian Communist Party. Both the DNSF and the SPW advocate a slow pace of reform and accuse the NSF of poor economic management. They are particularly critical of unemployment affecting some 800,000 people in a labor force of 10 million.
Third-ranked contender Gheorghe Funar could nevertheless push the election to the runoff, scheduled for Oct. 11, when only the two leading candidates will compete. As mayor of Cluj, Transylvania's main city, and member of the Party of National Unity of Romania (PUNR), Mr. Funar plays on Romanian nationalism. Some of Funar's initiatives have stirred protests from Romania's Hungarian minority, 7 percent of the population. Their political representative, the Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania, is a membe r of the Democratic Convention and officially supports Mr. Constantinescu in the presidential race.
BUT the Hungarians living in Romania are not the only ones interested in real change. The hardships of economic reform prompted many Romanians who voted for the NSF in May 1990 to reconsider their political options. The shift was clear in February, when soaring prices, rising unemployment, and the government's inability to deal with corruption paved the way for a spectacular ascent of the opposition.
No matter who wins the elections, the political puzzle makes forming an effective government difficult. Some 150 parties have been established in Romania since December 1989; 84 of them compete for seats in the two-chamber parliament. While most of them agree that the country should continue its struggle toward democracy and a free-market economy, there are substantial differences over how this should be accomplished.
Privatization, a process initiated by the government through the free distribution of property bonds, covering 30 percent of state property, to all Romanian citizens, is one of the most controversial issues. Left-wing parties, such as the DSFN, the SPW, and the PUNR are reluctant to accelerate privatization. Many of their members regard privatization as a threat to their economic power and privileges, since most of them have ties to to the old economic system, where the state was the only significant pow er.
Their attempt to preserve the old order gets significant support from the rural population. Satisfied with the restoration of property and the liberalization of prices, the peasants are likely to give their votes to the left.