One tale circulating among the Romanian opposition these days is of an old peasant woman who complains about how miserable her life has become under President Ion Iliescu, but says she'll vote for him again on Nov. 3.
Asked why on she won't vote for the prime challenger, Emil Constantinescu, the woman replies: "When Constantinescu is president, I'll vote for him."
Her sentiment reveals more about the Communist legacy of authoritarian, one-party rule than it does Mr. Iliescu's popularity with beleaguered countryfolk. In fact, Iliescu's left-wing, corruption-tainted Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) appears headed for defeat in elections for parliament.
But for the opposition to unseat Iliescu himself, it will have to make significant inroads into those hinterlands the PDSR has dominated via state-run television. Little of the independent - and often antigovernment - media reaches beyond the cities in this mostly rural nation of 23 million.
"The battlefield is for the peasants," says Mariela Neagu, campaign director for Mr. Constantinescu's Romanian Democratic Convention (CDR), a center-right alliance led by the National Peasants Party/Christian Democrats. "The people supporting Iliescu are not informed and follow blindly."
Which is just the way Iliescu appears to prefer it. His is the only leftist government to carry on in Central Europe since 1989. In fact, Romania's violent overthrow that Christmas of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu is still subject to debate: Was it a spontaneous revolution or a coup d'etat orchestrated by low-level party apparatchiks?
Cautious or crafty?
But a more burning question to the West is when Romania will shape up and immerse itself in true economic reform. Iliescu has moved the process forward slowly, in the name of avoiding unemployment-induced unrest. Critics say it is to maintain his grip on power.
Yet it is Romanian stability - amid the turmoil on its borders in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union - that is cited as the PDSR's crowning achievement over the past four years.
"Even if you had a Porsche on a road with potholes, you couldn't go at high speeds," says PDSR Executive President Adrian Nastase, who is also the Speaker of parliament. "We prefer to go at a slow, gradual speed because social upheaval would return us to point zero."
That spin may work domestically, but the West isn't buying it. The snail's pace of economic reform, an inefficient bureaucracy, and the PDSR's once-strong ties to extremists on the left and right, have caused privatization to sputter and turned off foreign investors and lending institutions alike. The likes of Coca-Cola, Shell, and Procter & Gamble are in the market, but few others.
So regardless of who is in control past November, analysts say, Bucharest will be pressed to accelerate reforms if it hopes to catch up to its Central European neighbors in the race to join NATO and the European Union.
With the PDSR fortitude questionable, many have thrown their support to the CDR or the centrist Social Democratic Union (USD), led by controversial former Prime Minister Petre Roman. Polls last week showed the CDR leading the PDSR and the USD.
Its days in power seemingly numbered, the PDSR has reacted desperately. It assailed the CDR as covertly monarchist with the intention of returning to power exiled former King Michael. The CDR responded with charges that Iliescu is plotting massive electoral fraud.
Constantinescu himself may not be able to overcome the telegenic Iliescu. The incumbent leads with 33 percent, down from 36 percent but still well ahead of Constantinescu's 27 percent and Roman's 22. A runoff between the top two candidates will be Nov. 17.
Some 20 percent of the electorate is either undecided or so disillusioned that it intends not to cast a ballot.
The core of Constantinescu's campaign is the CDR's "Contract With Romania," an agriculture-centered contract outlining various measures to be implemented within the first 200 days after the elections. The "contract" includes farmland reforms and a general liberalization to unleash private enterprise, and would allow foreigners to own land.
Constantinescu has been a road warrior over the past two months, pitching the contract to farmers. "People will accept [sacrifice] if they believe real reforms are being made.... But we've all paid a great price in the past few years, and for nothing," he told The Monitor.
With a new look in Bucharest, there will be high expectations home and abroad. But how much a CDR-led coalition in parliament could achieve with Iliescu still on top remains to be seen.