Elections to exorcise ghosts of the Ceausescu era
EVERY morning in Bucharest, the tourists queue up to inspect the Casa Poporului, the House of the People, the world's third largest building, the greatest monument to modern megalomania.
Each face of the gigantic folly on top of Spirei Hill is 270 metres long and 86 metres high. The 12 storey building with its four underground levels, was built to survive nuclear war and earthquakes; with 1,100 rooms, 4,500 chandeliers, marble walls, gold leafed ceilings, and silk covered walls, it is a most extravagant display of kitsch and bad taste, and a living reminder of the brutality of the Ceausescus, Nicolae and Elena.
In "the Paris of the East", a quarter of the city's historic centre, covering 5 sq km, was levelled to make way for the Casa Poporului, the surrounding Centru Civic, and Europe's largest boulevard: the Bulvardul Unirii, at a length of 4 km and a width of 120 metres marginally outstrips the Champs Elysees.
In the vandalism and demolition, 40,000 people were forcibly removed to the outskirts of the Romanian capital, and ancient homes and churches were destroyed.
The resulting outcry ensured the survival of a handful of ancient churches, including the mid-17th century Patriarchal Cathedral, with its Brancoveanu campanile and its vivid frescoes of the last judgment and Satan receiving the souls of the damned in hell. The cathedral on Dealul Mitropoliei attracts a few tourists; but after a personal guided tour of the Casa Poporului, it is easy to understand why the tourist who wanted to see the bowels of hell and the works of the devil might first chose to visit Ceausescu's folly on Spirei Hill.
Today, the Casa Poporului is used for art exhibitions, international conferences and fashion shows. After next month's parliamentary elections, the Chamber of Deputies will move in, although the senate is reluctant to leave its premises in the city centre.
The senate occupies the former headquarters of the Communist Party Central Committee, with its famous balcony where Ceausescu delivered his last speech to a heckling crowd of 80,000, and later scrambled to the roof to be airlifted away in a helicopter - three days later he was executed in Tirgoviste on Christmas Day, 1989.
The election on November 3rd is a genuine effort by all parties to exorcise the ghosts of the Ceausescu years, and to prove Romania's European credentials. Thousands of candidates are standing for parliament, and President Ion Iliescu, who won two previous elections in 1990 and 1992, is seeking a new four year term.
Mr Iliescu faces 15 challengers, and opinion polls show he has a tight battle against his two main rivals, Mr Emil Constantinescu of the Democratic Convention (CDR) and the former Prime Minister, Mr Petre Roman of the Social Democratic Union (SDU).
According to a poll this week by the IMAS institute, Mr Iliescu stands at 31.9 per cent, with Mr Constantinescu at 27.2 per cent, and Mr Roman at 21.9 per cent. The other candidates hold less than 5 per cent each. The election will go to a second round if no contender wins the 50 per cent needed for an outright first round win.
In the general election, the CDR leads with 31.2 per cent, followed by Mr Iliescu's ruling Social Democratic Party (PDSR) at 28.5 per cent, with the SDU in third place at 19.7 per cent.
Mr Iliescu was dropped from the central committee after 19 years by Ceausescu and sidelined into the state Technical Publishing House. Although never a dissident, he became the natural leader of the reformers in the Communist Party who formed the National Salvation Front (FSN) after the revolution. Mr Roman became his first prime minister, but after a split in the FSN Mr Iliescu's faction became the PDSR and Mr Roman formed the Democratic Party (FSN), now part of the SDU.
The new rising star in the PDSR is Mr Roman's former Foreign Minister, Mr Adrian Nastase, who has been tipped to succeed Mr Iliescu as the party's presidential choice in four years' time.
A charismatic professor of international law at Bucharest University, Mr Nastase (46) is now President of the Chamber of Deputies, and the most powerful political figure in Romania after Mr Iliescu. He admits to approaches from other parties to run for president in 1992, but has remained loyal to Mr Iliescu and has been leading his party's campaign in the capital and in the country side.
All parties are offering the same promises: economic reform, getting tough on corruption and energetic efforts to join NATO and the EU. But the economy is a major problem for Mr Iliescu and his supporters after almost seven years in office since the revolution. Inflation is up once again and running at 45 per cent, the leu remains artificially high at around 3,500 to the dollar, and the powerful state owned banks still dominate the economic sector.
At the factory gates and at village meetings, Mr Nastase has been promising reforms in the agriculture sector and state aid to help young families build houses, but knows he cannot promise higher wages or an immediate improvement in living standards. At campaign meetings he blames Romania's economic woes on Mr Roman's policies as prime minister. In interviews with the foreign media, he concentrates on foreign policy issues, praising Romania's improved relations with Hungary, proclaiming Romania's good intentions towards the west, and describing NATO membership in the first wave of expansion as his "first priority" followed later by entry into the EU.
The Foreign Minister, Mr Teodor Melescanu, has led a campaign of visits and lobbying across Europe and North America, travelling to Britain, Canada, France and the US to press Romania's NATO application.
Mr Nastase concedes that Mr Iliescu may have to go to a second wound and that the opposition has run "a very dynamic campaign".
A well read man of letters with a vast private art collection and a comfortable lifestyle, he claims: "I still consider politics as a hobby." But he does not hide his own hopes to run for president in the year 2000. "It's very difficult to predict the future," he told me. "But I'm ready to do what's needed." Whatever the results on November 3rd, he believes he can gain further valuable experience either continuing as President of the Chamber of Deputies or cast in a new role as leader of the opposition. "I still need time to learn," he says.
No matter how Mr Iliescu and his party fare, Mr Nastase is poised to become the principal leader of the generation of politicians to succeed the contemporaries of Nicolae Ceausescu.