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Romania Seen Voting for Change in General Election

November 2, 1996

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) _ For the first time since their Communist dictator was overthrown seven years ago, Romanians seem ready to vote for a power shift in hopes of a better life and closer ties to the West.

President Ion Iliescu, who has led one of Eastern Europe’s poorest countries since Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted and executed in 1989, holds a thin lead in opinion polls released ahead of Sunday’s national elections.

But voters fed up with rampant corruption, stifling bureaucracy and low wages are expected to give the democratic opposition a majority in the two-chamber parliament _ and its first chance to form the government.

``I want Romania to enter NATO and the European Union,″ said Alexandru Moldoveanu, 70, one of thousands of opposition supporters at a rally Thursday. ``I want life to improve here.″

All 16 presidential candidates have promised to bring Romania into the two Western organizations that offer the promise of wealth and stability, and to fight the corruption that permeates every sphere of society.

But the main opposition leaders, university professor Emil Constantinescu and former premier Petre Roman, also have campaigned for faster privatization _ playing up the benefits of a market economy, such as lower taxes, and carefully avoiding talk of the negatives, such as layoffs.

The latest poll, released Thursday, gave Iliescu 32 percent of the vote, Constantinescu 28 percent and Roman 21.5 percent. None of the candidates is expected to win an outright majority, so a runoff is expected in two weeks.

Officials announced today that nearly 6 million ballots _ about 12 percent of the total _ had to be reprinted because they were faulty, but that it wouldn’t jeopardize the election.

``The electoral symbols of the three independent candidates for the presidency were not printed, and therefore we cannot consider those ballots valid,″ said Central Electoral Bureau spokesman Liviu Capraru.

Iliescu, a 66-year-old former Communist who heads the ruling Social Democracy Party, has tried to ease the pain of economic reform by moving slowly.

That has put off Western investors while making him a reassuring figure for Romanians fearful about change.

Yet Iliescu’s popularity seems to be wearing thin even in the countryside, home to 45 percent of Romania’s 23 million people and a traditional base of support for his political machine.

``He’s got a clique of people and things stagnate because of the obstacles everywhere, the corruption,″ said government employee Ion Radia, 31, trying to make extra money by hawking produce in a village outside the capital of Bucharest.

On the street, in the late-fall chill of dusk, people stacked firewood onto horse-drawn trailers and piled heads of cabbage into run-down cars, preparing for the winter ahead _ and the shortages it will bring.

Romania remains backward compared to other countries in the region that are on a faster free-market track.

Foreign investors have put only $2 billion into the country, compared with $13 billion in neighboring Hungary, which has half the population.

Whoever wins the election will need to impose unpopular measures for Romania to win more investment and foreign loans, which leads analysts to predict that things will get worse before they get better.

Freeing up the market will involve lifting price freezes on staple goods and gasoline, privatizing banks and much of the former state industry, and cleaning up government. About 40 percent of Romania’s economy is in the private sector now.

Inflation, currently about 45 percent, is on the rise, and some economists say it could soar to 100 percent under market reforms.

Iliescu is telling Romanians to work harder while promising they won’t be left out in the cold.

``Without stability we are not going to achieve what we want,″ he said in a nationally televised debate Thursday night. ``The crisis cannot be beaten unless production increases.″

Playing up the role of statesman, he signed a historic treaty with Hungary in September pledging both countries to respect each other’s borders.

The United States and Western Europe, holding the keys to entry into NATO and the EU, had pushed for the treaty to promote stability in a volatile region.

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