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Fear bedevils Romanian voters: The elections are unlikely to bury the country's desperate past, writes Adrian Bridge in Bucharest

ALEXANDRE HERLEA cast an anxious look over his shoulder and lowered his voice. 'They have almost certainly got this room bugged,' he said, shaking his head despairingly. 'Someone out there is listening in and taking all this down. Oh yes, the Securitate is still very much with us today.'

It seemed an unlikely proposition. But, then again, instantly plausible. Almost three years after the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu, suspicions and rumours about his hated former secret police still abound in Romania. To this day, only a tiny fraction of those behind the massacre of more than 1,000 citizens involved in the December 1989 revolution have been found or sent to trial.

Assuming the worst, many Romanians believe the Securitate has simply gone underground and is still serving the interests of the regime - using their traditional tactics of intimidation, disinformation and good old-fashioned spying on potential opponents.

According to Mr Herlea, a spokesman for the opposition Democratic Convention, the Securitate has had its day. Romanians, he insists, are sick and tired of living under the shadow of the country's dark Communist past and tomorrow, in the first election that comes anywhere close to being free and fair since the overthrowing of Ceausescu, they will firmly vote for a change.

'We are the only country in eastern Europe that still has a Communist in power,' he says, referring to Romania's incumbent President, Ion Iliescu, a former minister under the Ceausescu regime. 'It is a great humiliation for us. But at last people are waking up to the fact that, for all the talk of reform, nothing has really changed since the revolution. And all they really want now is a definitive break with the past.'

At the Bucharest headquarters of the Democratic Convention, a broad coalition of some 17 opposition parties and groups pushing for the introduction of genuine democratic reform and a market economy, morale has been high this week. Beneath a campaign poster of the Statue of Liberty holding a key - to open the door to freedom or to unlock the chains of the past - Mr Herlea and his colleagues point to opinion polls which show their candidate in the presidential race, Emil Constantinescu, racing ahead of his main opponent, Mr Iliescu. They also predict that their parties are set to emerge as the largest single grouping in parliament.

While not wholly misplaced, such confidence is still hard to justify. Looking at another set of polls, the supporters of Mr Iliescu and his Democratic National Salvation Front are equally hopeful. Their man, while obviously not about to repeat his 85 per cent showing in the highly dubious election of May 1990, will win just under 40 per cent, they claim, comfortably ahead of Mr Constantinescu and the other four candidates in the presidential race.

'Mr Iliescu's vision of the future is at least realistic,' said one of a group of party workers in the President's press office whose youthful appearance seemed deliberately calculated to belie the commonly held belief that his supporters are simply ageing Communists desperate to cling on to their privileges. 'The opposition may have grand-sounding slogans, but they are simply dreamers with no real experience.'

The lack of experience is hardly surprising. Following the systematic intimidation of opponents and vote-rigging in the 1990 election, Mr Iliescu's personal triumph was matched by a resounding parliamentary victory for the then unified National Salvation Front, a movement dominated by former Communists.

'Everybody knows that the old guard is still running the show, but many Romanians, particularly in the countryside, are terrified of change,' said Lia Trandafir, a journalist on the opposition Tinerama newspaper. 'After 45 years of brainwashing and terror, they can no longer tell fact and fiction apart and may well plump for the devil they know.'

Mr Iliescu, an avuncular figure who likes to refer to himself as a Social Democrat, has successfully played on fears that a victory for the Democratic Convention would lead to 'wild capitalism' - a sweeping restoration of land and factories confiscated under the Communists which in turn would lead to mass unemployment and an inflation rate even higher than the current one of more than 200 per cent. If re-elected, he has pledged a slow pace of change and no speedy break-up of the social support system. He has also repeatedly stressed pride in what he terms Romania's achievements under Communism.

While nationalistic strains are present in the Iliescu campaign, they are much more pronounced in the candidacy of Gheorghe Funar, the leader of the far right-wing Romanian National Unity Party and mayor of the Transylvanian city of Cluj.

Mr Funar, who may poll as much as 10 per cent of the vote, is well known for his virulently anti-Hungarian views, barely concealed beneath a rhetoric focusing on 'work, freedom, national dignity and God'. Although on the right politically, he has also praised Mr Ceausescu - who deliberately set out to weaken the distinct cultural identity of the country's 1.8 million Hungarians - as a 'good Romanian'.

According to Democratic Convention supporters, the nationalist issue has been whipped up to divert attention from the key question of whether to break with Communism and may even have been orchestrated by the Iliescu camp itself. Certainly it seems clear that in the likely run-off for the presidency, Mr Funar will urge his voters to switch their allegiances to Mr Iliescu, possibly even tilting the verdict his way.

'He may just slip in through the back door thereby delaying real reform for a further four years,' Ms Trandafir said. 'It would be a tragedy for the country. We are in a crisis. What we really need is a Churchill or a De Gaulle. Unfortunately, there isn't one on the horizon.'

(Photograph omitted)