Despite an overcrowded ballot for both the presidency and National Assembly, Sunday's election fails to offer the alternative Romanians need most: stability.
The second election in less than three years since Romanians overthrew dictator Nicolae Ceausescu has shaped up into a battle of spoilers, with a six-way race for president and a Parliament guaranteed to be hopelessly split.
Infighting in the ruling National Salvation Front and inexperience among the fractured opposition have left most voters with a feeling that they must choose among the lesser of many evils.
Opinion polls, although of questionable reliability, show that none of the presidential candidates enjoys anything near majority support, which is expected to throw voting into a second round and set off elaborate back-room bargaining for support from the losers.
President Ion Iliescu, the populist incumbent who smilingly shrugs off his Communist past, redicts reelection on the second ballot--an outcome feared to be likely even by his opponents.
The latest polls show Bucharest University Dean Emil Constantinescu, an advocate of free-market reforms, with a slight lead over Iliescu. But radical nationalist Gheorghe Funar and center-left Social Democrat Caius Dragomir have also been drawing greater than 10% each, promising to put a large chunk of the electorate up for grabs at the Oct. 11 runoff.
Funar supporters would naturally move to Iliescu's side in the likely event of an inconclusive first ballot, as would many of those who vote for Dragomir on Sunday. Dragomir and Iliescu represent rival wings of the National Salvation Front, which split into two parties in March over the pace and scope of economic reforms.
"In a contest between Iliescu and Constantinescu, Iliescu would win," predicts Dragomir, nearly conceding that he is unlikely to be around for the second ballot. "This would be disaster for Romania--isolation and a perestroika kind of communism, because he (Iliescu) is evidently not able to break old habits."
Iliescu seeks to justify putting the brakes on reform by citing the nearly 700% inflation suffered over the last two years and a spiraling jobless rate that has thrown as many as 1 million Romanians out of work, in a country that offers pitiful social assistance.
The 62-year-old president is equally dismissive of Western criticism of the strong-arm tactics he has used to silence opponents and of suggestions that the nation's interests might best be served if he stepped down.
"It is not up to others but up to us to decide who rules Romania," Iliescu said in an interview, vaguely accusing Western "political lobby interests" of unjustly staining his reputation.
Much of Romania's unstable image results from devastating attacks by coal miners who were summoned to Bucharest by Iliescu to quell opposition unrest. Six people were beaten to death in a June, 1990, rampage, and reformist Prime Minister Petre Roman was forced out of office last October after another destructive assault.
Yet Iliescu makes no apologies for his actions. "You have riots in Los Angeles and peasant protests in Paris. This is a process you can find in many countries during such difficult moments," he said.
Current forecasts suggest that at least seven widely divergent parties will clear the 3% minimum needed to win seats in the 143-member Senate or 328-member House. That is expected to hamper negotiations on selecting a new Cabinet as parties representing such diverse interests as reunification with the former Soviet republic of Moldova and restriction of minority rights battle to get their people into a coalition.
An opposition sweep of the presidency and Parliament is considered unlikely and would be met with a harsh and destabilizing reaction by radical groups such as the miners.
If Iliescu wins the presidency and opposition forces dominate the Parliament, the two branches of power would wrangle endlessly, thwarting progress on reform. If an anti-reform coalition emerges, massive unrest is almost guaranteed, at least in the pro-market stronghold of Bucharest.