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Six compete to wear Romania's crown of thorns: Iliescu has lost his grip. His opponents are gaining ground. As the election looms, Tony Barber weighs up the voters' choices

STAFF at the Romanian newspaper Evenimentul Zilei got a surprise two weeks ago when they opened a letter from a student reader. Inside were sheets of toilet paper, each bearing the trace of a 100-lei banknote. The staff contacted the National Bank, which confirmed what some Romanians had long suspected: tons of banknotes are shredded every day, and recycled.

The episode sums up the fate of the Romanian currency since the Ceausescu dictatorship collapsed in December 1989. Officially, 100 lei were worth about pounds 5 before the Christmas revolution; now it is one-fortieth of that. Inflation is running at an annual 210 per cent, and the average wage is barely pounds 30 a month. Despairing of a better life, more than half a million of Romania's 23 million people have poured out of the country since the revolution.

Next Sunday, Romania holds presidential and parliamentary elections that offer the chance of a fresh start. Voters must decide whether to re-elect Ion Iliescu, a former Ceausescu associate, to the presidency; whether to go for the main opposition contender, Emil Constantinescu of the centre-right Democratic Convention; or whether to back a nationalist of the extreme right. Whoever wins, the path forward will not be easy, for the hardships and tensions that bedevil Romanian life are not just to do with money.

As between 1919 and 1940, violence, corruption and xenophobia dog Romania's efforts to build a stable democracy. This campaign, though fairer than most this century, has seen bomb threats, attempted manipulation, and physical and verbal abuse of candidates. Although the brutality of the Ceausescu era has gone, the atmosphere is thick with intimidation and deceit. Badly bruised by seven decades of thuggery and lies from their rulers, Romanians still lead lives poisoned by hopelessness and suspicion.

How much blame should fall on Mr Iliescu, who took power after the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu on Christmas Day, 1989, is open to question. He won Romania's first post-communist election in May 1990 by a landslide, but his campaign was notable for the vicious and well-organised intimidation of his opponents. His party, the National Salvation Front (NSF), was dominated by ex-communists, who played on traditional fears of foreign economic exploitation. One month after his victory, he sent his private armies on to the streets of Bucharest to crush a peaceful anti-government demonstration. Since then, his grip has slackened. The NSF split in March, and the conservative wing that remained loyal to him, the Democratic National Salvation Front (DNSF), is less popular. Wits dub it 'the Front for Iliescu's Salvation'. Recent opinion polls, though not wholly reliable, suggest that he will not gain outright victory in the election, and will be forced to a second ballot. His main challenger is Mr Constantinescu, whose Convention did well in local elections last February. Mr Constantinescu, a former communist, is less tainted by his past and shuns the anti-foreigner rhetoric of his opponents.

He talks of ending the 'chaos and corruption' by introducing a market economy with a social contract between employers and workers. He supports a referendum on whether to restore King Michael, who abdicated in 1947. According to a poll last Friday, he enjoys strong support from army officers, 58 per cent of whom said they would vote for the Democratic Convention candidates.

The other four presidential contenders are Ion Manzatu, a university professor and former protege of Elena Ceausescu; Mircea Druc, once the prime minister of neighbouring Moldova, who advocates the former Soviet republic's immediate reunification with Romania; Caius Dragomir, the candidate of the reformist remnant of the NSF; and Gheorghe Funar, mayor of the Transylvanian city of Cluj.

Of these, perhaps the most sinister candidate is Mr Funar. In Cluj, where one in four people belongs to the Hungarian minority, he has banned Hungarian-language signs and publications. He has whipped up anti-Hungarian feeling by accusing the minority of plotting to secede from Romania and by accusing Hungary of preparing an invasion.

His emergence reflects the rise of nationalists who espouse a venomous anti-Semitism and love to bully Hungarians and Gypsies. When the Hungarians of Transylvania held a conference in Budapest, Adevarul - formerly the Communist Party paper Scinteia - compared it to 'a congress of witches, stamp-collectors, homosexuals or grave-diggers'.

The nationalists have also taken aim at Laszlo Tokes, the ethnic Hungarian bishop behind the 1989 uprising, who recently went on hunger strike in his home town, Timisoara. He accused the authorities of protecting the killers of more than 1,000 people in December 1989, and of failing to unmask those responsible for violence against the NSF's critics. The DNSF campaign organiser in Timisoara, Florica Ciuca, said: 'There is no doubt that Tokes is a CIA agent, and probably the agent of other services, too.'

Such accusations inspire little confidence that the condition of Romania's minorities will soon improve. Their best hope is probably that Mr Constantinescu is elected. But even if he is, he will face a battle to revive the economy, shattered by the Ceausescu legacy, the collapse of the trade group Comecon, and the loss of markets in Iraq and Yugoslavia.

There is also pressure to reunite with Moldova, the area annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. The last thing Romania needs is conflict with Russia but, whatever the result next week, the outlook does not look promising.

(Photograph omitted)