Romania Stumbles Again

Three years after Ceausescu's fall, Romanians face typical East European problems: political and economic chaos and strains among minority groups

ROMANIA continues to sputter toward democracy. The results of the second general elections since the violent revolution of December 1989 send mixed signals about Romania's future. Although democrats committed to capitalism made significant strides, ex-communist officials retained much of their support and will continue to place brakes on economic reconstruction. At the same time, the nationalist specter extended its shadow over the country.

Ion Iliescu, the reform socialist who took power after Nicolae Ceausescu, looks to retain the presidency in a run-off ballot scheduled for Oct. 11. He failed to gain an absolute majority in the first round. But his nearest rival from the Democratic Convention, Emil Constantinescu, scored only 31 percent. The parliamentary ballot looks more confusing. No party can claim enough seats to form a government without entering into an unsteady coalition.

President Iliescu performed better than most pollsters had expected for two reasons: his lingering charisma among many workers and peasants and the inadequate efforts of Mr. Constantinescu, a political newcomer. Iliescu benefited from the entrenched ex-communist apparatus of the Democratic National Salvation Front in the countryside.

Romania's small towns and villages have barely been touched by the democratic wave. Farmers remain dependent on a network of officials and are susceptible to a well-oiled propaganda machine which is both anti-intellectual and anti-urban. Iliescu promised them peace, continuity, stability, employment, and social welfare, and he painted the democratic challengers as inexperienced radicals and ruthless capitalists who would sacrifice jobs and welfare to the ravages of the marketplace.

The Front capitalized on the ingrained paternalism among ordinary workers who see the state as a provider and protector and fear a massive disruption of their precarious lives through radical economic change. Iliescu largely succeeded in buying off farm workers through a partial land-distribution program and has cushioned workers in large industrial sectors against inflation and unemployment. This false sense of security has lasted long enough to buy time and forestall a landslide defeat of the old power


But with or without privatization, the Romanian economy will suffer. The next government will bear the brunt of public blame for soaring unemployment, inflation, and pauperization.

The Democratic Convention, a fragile coalition of 17 political organizations, was unable to dislodge the Front. It lacked unity, media, funds, an attractive message, and did not penetrate the countryside. The democratic opposition in neighboring Bulgaria and Albania suffered from similar problems during their first elections, but did better in the second.

But Romania suffers from a unique disadvantage. Elsewhere it was the democrats that dislodged the communists; in Bucharest it was communist reformers. By posing as democrats they deprived the opposition of a clearly definable identity.

Romania's political equations are likely to multiply in the coming weeks in the attempt to form a workable government. Iliescu's Front, claiming 28 percent of the Parliament's seats, may court the nationalist Romanian National Unity Party (PUNR) which, along with the neofascist Romania Mare, captured 12 percent of the parliamentary vote.

The PUNR has been aided by the Front to appeal to anti-Hungarian and anti-minority sentiments. But its leaders now appear emboldened and may demand some key ministries in exchange for their participation, including internal security and national defense. Iliescu may have to openly lend respectability to demagogues and xenophobes.

Alternatively, the Front may seek a broader coalition with assorted left-of-center parties and even with the National Salvation Front of former Prime Minister Petre Roman, whose poll results proved very disappointing. Mr. Roman's party gained only 10 percent of the legislature.

THE Convention, with 20 percent of parliamentary seats, could also muster a coalition government with the Hungarian bloc (9 percent of parliament), the Roman Front, and some small right-of-center parties. But the Convention may not survive in a unified form. Increasing rivalries between free-market liberals in the Civic Alliance and Christian Democrats are coming to the fore, and Iliescu will undoubtedly seek to exploit these divisions. Even if a democratic administration were forged, the new government would likely encounter innumerable conflicts with the presidency, which benefits from various prerogatives according to the new constitution. An inability to maintain a stable government could prove catastrophic.

Economic decline and industrial unrest would be compounded by ethnic frictions with the large Hungarian minority in Transylvania, invariably instigated by ultra-nationalist forces. Facing a loss of public confidence, Iliescu himself could follow Serb President Milosevic's example and play the nationalist card against the alleged Hungarian separatist threat. A spiral of radicalization and ethnic polarization could swiftly follow. The violence in Tirgu Mures two years ago demonstrates how easily conflicts can be fomented by cunning politicians willing to use scapegoats to distract attention from pressing political and economic problems.

The Romanian elections indicate that political progress will be slow and painful. But it would be counterproductive for the West to isolate Romania right now. By prolonging limitations on Bucharest's access to markets and investments we may even encourage autocratic and nationalist forces. Only through intense political and economic involvement with the new parliament and government can another Balkan explosion be prevented.

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