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  • Romania’s Road to “Normalcy”
  • Michael Shafir (bio)

In November 1996, Romanians used the ballot box to toss out the government of ex-communists that had been ruling their country since 1989, when the December Revolution toppled communist strongman Nicolae Ceausescu. In parliamentary elections on November 3 and a presidential runoff on November 17, voters unseated President Ion Iliescu (first elected in May 1990) and his ruling Social Democracy Party of Romania (PDSR) and handed the reins to President-elect Emil Constantinescu and a parliamentary coalition led by his Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR). Since throwing off communism in 1989, other East and Central European countries have seen governments led by ex-communists come and go via free and competitive elections. For Romania, however, the electoral expulsion of the former communists in November 1996 marked a first. The focal point of popular celebration following the balloting was University Square in downtown Bucharest, the very site from which, in June 1990, peaceful anti-Iliescu demonstrators had been forcibly evicted by a rampaging mob of coal miners whom the government had trucked into the capital for the purpose.

In party-list voting for the 328-member Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Romania’s bicameral Parliament), the CDR went from 82 to 122 seats, while the PDSR dropped from 117 to 91 seats. The CDR’s new position as the plurality “party” (it is actually a grouping of several democratic opposition parties) enabled it to form a coalition government with the Social Democratic Union (or USD, 53 seats) and the Democratic Union of Magyars in Romania (or UDMR, 25 seats), the party that represents Romania’s ethnic Hungarians.

The presidential contest overshadowed the parliamentary balloting. The Constitution, adopted in 1991, provides for a semipresidential [End Page 144] republic. Since becoming chairman of the National Salvation Council during the December Revolution, Iliescu had become an imposing figure in the personalistic political culture of Romania. As interim president, and then during his more than six years as the country’s elected chief executive, he had seldom hesitated to make use of all the power he could command. The democratic opposition viewed his replacement as a key step on the road to overcoming the legacy of rule by the Romanian Communist Party, in whose leadership Iliescu had held a prominent place until 1971, when Ceausescu subjected him to a relatively mild ostracization. Then too, the presidential race simply held more uncertainty. With the PDSR damaged by repeated corruption scandals, with inflation rising again despite attempts to check it by artificial means, and with living standards dropping at a growing pace, opinion polls had been indicating since late summer that the PDSR would probably lose its sway in Parliament. Both sides, therefore, focused on winning the presidency.

The presidential race was a rematch of the 1992 contest between the incumbent Iliescu and the challenger Constantinescu, a geologist and former rector of the University of Bucharest. In the 1996 first round, Iliescu gained 32 percent to Constantinescu’s 28 percent. A third candidate, former prime minister Petre Roman of the USD, took 21 percent (none of the other 13 contenders reached double digits). 1 No candidate got the 50 percent or more needed for a first-round victory, necessitating the November 17 runoff between the top two finishers.

Pursuing a “damage control” strategy, Iliescu and the PDSR spared no effort in reprising the anti-CDR attacks that had worked four years before. Yet the incumbents seemed to have run out of imagination, and at times seemed to be having trouble believing their own propaganda. One of the PDSR’s major slogans, for example, featured a call for “change”—as if it had not been Iliescu’s formation that, under one name or another, had dominated the Romanian political scene since the fall of Ceausescu in December 1989. 2 As in 1992, the CDR found itself charged with intending to restore the monarchy and landed gentry, and to cease the payment of pensions. 3 Iliescu rang a few changes on these old themes, as when he told tenants that a PDSR-sponsored law making it possible for them to buy their communist-nationalized apartments (and thus making...