- The Bucharest Syndrome
Almost three years after the December 1989 overthrow of communist dictator Nicolae Ceaueşscu and two-and-a-half years after the partially free elections of May 1990, Romanians went to the polls early in the autumn of 1992 to choose a president and parliament under their country's new noncommunist constitution. Public opinion polling done around the beginning of September had promised a tight race between the incumbent president, ex-communist Ion Iliescu of the Democratic National Salvation Front (DNSF), and his leading challenger, Emil Constantinescu of the Democratic Convention of Romania (DCR). In the first round of presidential balloting on September 27, however, Iliescu won 47 percent of the vote—less than the 50 percent he needed to win the presidency outright, but enough to put him comfortably ahead of Constantinescu's 31 percent and the 11 percent won by ultranationalist Gheorghe Funar of the Party of Romanian National Unity (PRNU). Turnout was high, with over 73 percent of eligible voters casting ballots.
Iliescu's relatively strong showing at the top of the ticket did little to help his party's list of legislative candidates, which managed to poll only about 28 percent of the total votes cast in races for the 341-member House of Deputies and 143-member Senate, seats in both of which are allocated according to a complex set of rules based mainly on proportional representation with a 3-percent minimum threshold. The DCR list, meanwhile, picked up 20 percent, gleaning almost twice as [End Page 41] many votes as the party that came in third in the parliamentary contest, the National Salvation Front (NSF) of former prime minister and erstwhile Iliescu ally Petre Roman.
In the presidential run-off held on October 11, Iliescu defeated Constantinescu by a total of 61 to 39 percent. A geologist and the current rector of the University of Bucharest, Constantinescu was supported by the 17 opposition parties and civic movements that had banded loosely together to form the DCR before the February 1992 local elections. Having done surprisingly well (especially in the big cities) in those local races, the DCR saw its prospects brighten even more when growing personal and political tensions between Roman and Iliescu burst into public view later that spring and caused a formal split in the ruling NSF, the group of former communists who had taken the reins of power from Ceauşescu in 1989. The development of this rift looked like a godsend to the democratic opposition, which coalesced behind Constantinescu in June and seemed poised to make large gains in the upcoming balloting.
In the event, however, the fall 1992 elections resulted in a stalemate: with neither the opposition nor the DNSF able to muster even 30 percent of the vote, nationalist groupings like the PRNU and the Romania Mare (Greater Romania) party became powerbrokers. Widely seen abroad as a disappointing setback for democracy, Iliescu's landslide victory in the presidential run-off presented the strange spectacle of majority support rallying behind an unrepentant ex-communist in a country with a long history of suffering under communist tyranny of the worst sort. Iliescu preaches—and may even believe in—what he calls "original democracy," by which he seems to mean something similar to J.L. Talmon's famous definition of "totalitarian democracy" as "dictatorship resting on popular enthusiasm."1 Needless to say, such a conception leaves little room for the political pluralism that citizens of Western countries have long taken for granted as an essential feature of democracy.
The Legacy of Ceauşescu
To understand the peculiar political situation that prevails today, one must take into account the character of Ceauşescu's rule, which endured for a quarter-century and had a massive impact on everything that happened in Romania, up to and including the violent upheaval that cost him his power and his life. The Ceauşescu regime was characterized by harsh Stalinist controls on social, cultural, and economic life; an all-pervasive cult of personality focused on the ruler; draconian austerity measures; and an explosive combination of mass discontent and official brutality. In the years following his rise...