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Romania Confronts Extremist Challenge

The Romanian political establishment rallies to counter hard line nationalist surge
By Marian Chiriac

An unprecedented alliance between left-wing and centrist parties is rapidly taking shape to counter the shock success of fiery hard line nationalist Corneliu Vadim Tudor in the November 26 general elections.

Romania's political elites were sent reeling by the results. The ruling Democratic Convention of President Emil Constantinescu was obliterated, failing to secure enough votes to remain in parliament at all. The two surviving centrist parties - the Democratic Party, PD, and the National Liberal Party, PNL - saw their vote drop to seven per cent.

The leftist Party of Social Democracy, PDSR, under ex-communist Ion Iliescu, won with 39 per cent. But Tudor's Greater Romania Party, PRM, scooped 22 per cent, much more than pre-election opinion polls had predicted and considerably better than the 4.5 per cent it scored in 1996.

On November 29, the PD and PNL, traditional enemies of the PDSR, called on their supporters to back Iliescu in the second round of the presidential election, scheduled for December 10. Party spokesmen also said they would join a minority government with the PDSR, provided Iliescu's party committed to European integration.

Hungarian minority leaders and union bosses have also called on supporters to vote for Iliescu."We recommend that our members do not vote for a political force which continues to express extremist, racist and xenophobic ideas which are a serious threat to democracy in Romania," deputy leader of the Cartel Alpha union Romulus Nita.

Tudor, a poet and publisher, has been compared to Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Austria's Jorg Haider for his xenophobic outbursts. In recent years he has railed against Gypsies, Jews, ethnic Hungarians and homosexuals.

Undaunted by the political realignments now underway, the PRM reiterated its ambitions to form a government with Iliescu's party. The two parties have a long history of co-operation. During the PDSR government of 1992-1996, the ultra-nationalists were awarded junior ministerial and local government posts.

"We hope the PDSR properly understands our initiative, which is in the country's interest," said PRM official Corneliu Ciontu.

Ilieascu's new centrist allies have called on the PDSR to prove its split with Tudor's party is "definitive" and rule out any co-operation with the PRM.

The election results demonstrate Romania, a decade on from the overthrow of Nicolae Ceaucescu's Communist regime, remains a mass of contradictions. People are enthusiastic about the prospect of European Union membership, but clearly ill-informed or unwilling to accept the tough conditions membership requires.

Analysts put Tudor's startling success down to popular disgust at 11 years of economic decline and rampant corruption.

"Popular trust in state institutions has been constantly eroded," said analyst Dorel Sandor of the Centre for Political Studies. "The political instability within the ruling coalition, which as been worn down by constant bickering, is also an important factor."

A third of Tudor's votes came from young people aged 18 to 35. He also drew most support from Transylvania, Romania's better-developed and most Western-orientated region.

Historian Adrian Cioroianu said Tudor's tough stance on crime and personal charisma has struck a chord with voters. "Many people here see him as the saviour of the nation and believe that in a country like Romania the only way to put things in order is to apply extreme measures," he said.

During the campaign Tudor called for 180 named "traitors" to be "liquidated". He said, "Romania can only be run with machine guns."

Now on the brink on the presidency he has moderated his tone. "We simply want to eradicate the mafia and begin a new life for our country," he said. "We won because people understood our just, nationalist message."

But Tudor warned his opponents on November 29 that, should he win the presidency, he would not tolerate a hostile assembly. "If parliament proves to be against the electoral wave and national interest, I assure you that we would dissolve it by summer," he said.

The prospect of a Tudor presidency has rung alarm bells abroad, especially in the European Union, which began accession talks with Romania last year. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, is also worried. In January the chairmanship passes to Romania.

"The danger for Romanians of a Tudor presidency is that it would bring negotiations for entry into the EU to an abrupt end," warned Cioroianu. "If the EU reacted harshly against Austria when the Freedom party entered government, it is not going to look kindly at a person known for his attacks on ethnic minorities."

The Simon Weisenthal Centre, which campaigns against anti-Semitism, issued a statement saying, "If Tudor's party were to enter government it would legitimise hatred, while Romania's status within the Council of Europe would be strongly called into question."

Iliescu has sought to calm nerves at home and abroad.

"Tudor won't get any more votes next time than he got on November 26," he said. "Our people are rational. They can't trust his demagogic promises. They have neither substance nor economic support."

Bolstered by his new alliance with Romania's centrist parties Iliescu, it seems, is confident of victory on December 10.

Marian Chiriac is a regular IWPR contributor