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Romanian Politics in Turmoil After President Quits

With presidential elections just four months away, Emil Constantinescu's surprise decision to pull out of the contest has left Romania's political circles in a spin
By Marian Chiriac

Romanian President, Emil Constantinescu, this week shocked the country's television viewers when he announced his withdrawl from the presidential race.


In a fifteen minute speech, laced with populist rhetoric, the president blamed Romania's "limitless" corruption for not pursuing a second term in office.


"When I launched myself into the fight against corruption I discovered in Romania a mafia system in which a web of front operations were backed by the highest state institutions," Constantinescu said. "We live in a world where everything is for sale - principles, ideologies, parliamentary seats. My place is not in this world."


The president called on impoverished Romanians to support him in rooting out venality. He vowed to continue the anti-corruption campaign during his remaining four months in office.


Members of the ruling Christian Democrat-led coalition government, which helped to bring Constaninescu to power, could be targeted. The president said all those of guilty of graft would be sought out regardless of whether they're members of parliament, government ministers or judges.


Constantinescu, a former geology professor, took office in 1996. The fight against the country's Communist legacy and the persistent influence of officials from the regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu were high on his agenda.


But success was patchy - Romania failed to open its economy to the West or to join NATO. The country has, however, been invited to formal talks on future European Union integration.


Constantinescu's popularity has declined steadily as Romania's growing poverty has pushed average salaries down to less than $100 per month. Successive administrations have also been marred by incessant infighting.


The president only launched his re-election bid three weeks ago. Voters have interpreted his sudden change of heart as the act of a frustrated politician or a desperate man - either way his dramatic gesture has only confirmed suspicions that, as far as corruption is concerned, nothing has changed.


Adrian Nastase of the opposition Social Democratic Party of Romania, PDSR, described the move as a "brave act...and honourable, only if it is not reversible." He added the move indicated a "total political failure" and questioned whether Constantinescu was merely trying to distract voters' attention away from the ruling coalition's responsibility for the current economic malaise.


Analysts see the decision as recognition by Constantinescu that he has next to no chance of winning a second term. A recent opinion poll had Constantinescu at 11 per cent compared to 48 per cent for his arch rival Ion Iliescu, leader of the PDSR.


Constantinescu's departure leaves a void on the centre-right, which perhaps only the technocrat Prime Minister, Mugur Isarescu, has a chance of filling. The stage now seems set for two candidates who made their careers under Communism - Iliescu and former foreign minister, Teodor Melescanu.


Iliescu had been a senior Communist Party official under Ceaucescu before becoming president in 1990. He was defeated by Constantinescu in the 1996 elections. Melescanu had been a senior diplomat under the pre-1989 Communist regime and later became Romania's foreign minister.


There has been some concern among Western officials that the election of a former Communist to the presidency could damage Romania's improving relations with the EU and the United States.


EU enlargement commissioner ,Gunter Verheugen, wrote to Iliescu recently to express his hope "Romania would put into practice the Action Plan for EU Accession regardless of which government comes to power after the elections scheduled for this autumn."


The centre-right now has to find an alternative candidate, however, and as Romania's most popular daily paper, Adevarul, pointed out Constantinescu's departure leaves a "Clear Road" for the replacement.


The Christian Democrats selected Isarescu as their presidential candidate July 19. The party's leader, Ion Diaconescu, said that despite some reluctance "Mr Isarescu had no other choice but to accept."


But Isarescu is hesitating, apparently weighing up whether he would be better placed to continue his reform programme as prime minister. Speaking a few days after the Christian Democrats announcement, he said, "I'm thinking about it, that's all I can say at the moment."


Isarescu, a former central bank governor, was only appointed prime minister last year after the bickering coalition government failed to agree on anyone else. He has succeeded in securing deals with the International Monetary Fund, however, and the Romanian economy is growing once again, after three years of recession.


Although an expert financier and well liked in the West, Isarescu lacks the political support necessary to force through much-needed reforms. He also has only four months in which to turn around a very poor poll rating.


Romania's economic and social problems have pushed voters back towards the left, to former Communists like Iliescu.


"Isarescu has to find solutions against Iliescu's deal for voters - slowing down reforms and the re-establishment of an economic safety net for the poor," said political analyst and former government minister, Ilie Serbanescu. "In conditions like we have in Romania at present, it's very hard for a reformist to play the trump card."


Marian Chiriac is news editor at the MediaFax News Agency in Bucharest and editor of Foreign Policy, a quarterly published by the Romanian Academic Society


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