Romania likely to stick with old guard

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ION ILIESCU, a former Communist minister under Nicolae Ceausescu, appeared to be heading for re-election as President of Romania last night after early exit polls gave him a commanding lead over his nearest rival.

The exit polls showed Mr Iliescu on 48 per cent, well ahead of Emil Constantinescu, the main opposition candidate in yesterday's presidential election, on 33 per cent. Gheorghe Funar, a far- right Romanian nationalist, was set to come third, with 10 per cent of the vote.

In the simultaneous parliamentary elections, Mr Iliescu's Democratic National Salvation Front was heading for 27.5 per cent, only marginally ahead of Mr Constantinescu's Democratic Convention, which was on 23 per cent.

Although Mr Iliescu did not poll enough to secure an outright victory, there seems little doubt he will emerge victorious from the run-off he will have with Mr Constantinescu next month.

The prospect of a further four years of Iliescu rule came as a crushing blow to supporters of Mr Constantinescu's Democratic Convention, who had fervently hoped that yesterday's election would herald a decisive break with Romania's Communist past.

'This is a disaster for the country, a terrible step backwards,' said Dan Georgescu, one of the Convention's many shocked supporters. 'We have just committed ourselves to years of further stagnation and isolation. The old guard is now firmly back in the saddle.'

Predictions before the elections indicated it would be a much closer race, which could even have swung Mr Constantinescu's way. The Democratic Convention, an alliance of 17 parties and groups, campaigned vigorously for the dismantling of all the country's old Communist structures, the introduction of genuine democracy and a swift transformation into a market economy.

While popular in Bucharest and other major cities, their platform failed to win over those in the countryside, terrified that rapid capitalism would mean the return of old-fashioned style landlords and mass unemployment. Many felt uneasy, too, about Mr Constantinescu's plan to hold a referendum on whether or not to restore the monarchy and his conciliatory approach in dealings with the country's 1.8 million ethnic Hungarians.

'Mr Iliescu is a good Romanian and a strong man,' said Gheorghe Fieraru, a voter standing in line at a polling station in Pitesti, 80 miles northwest of Bucharest. 'He is the man with the most experience and the one most likely to guarantee economic stability.'

While devastated by the personal defeat of Mr Constantinescu, Democratic Convention supporters drew little comfort from the projected results of the parliamentary polls. Although no party came close to an outright majority, Mr Iliescu, who has led the country since the overthrow of Ceausescu in December 1989, appeared better placed to be able to patch together a workable coalition headed by his Democratic National Salvation Front.

If, as is almost certain, he is re- elected president next month, he will, in any case, have the power to appoint the new prime minister.

(Photograph omitted)