A shot at presidency for Romanian xenophobe

ROME, Nov. 27 (JTA) – A far-right nationalist party described by Jewish groups as Romania’s “most nationalist and anti-Semitic” party has become Romania’s main opposition force in Parliament and its leader has a shot at becoming the country’s next president.

In elections held Sunday, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, the 51-year-old leader of the extremist Greater Romania Party, came in second out of a dozen candidates for president with an estimated 28 percent of the vote.

He will face former Communist Ion Iliescu, 70, who served as Romania’s president from 1990 to 1996, in a run-off vote for president on Dec. 10. Iliescu led the first-round vote with 37 percent.

Polling organizations predicted that the run-off would be tight. At least one said there were indications that Tudor – who has been compared to other extreme-right figures such as Austria’s Jorg Haider, France’s Jean Marie Le Pen and Russia’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky – could win.

The developments sent shock waves through Romania’s Jewish community. About 12,000 Jews live in Romania, about half of them in Bucharest. Most of the community is elderly, with fewer than 1,000 under the age of 35.

“The situation is extremely dangerous,” said a Bucharest Jewish businessman in his 30s. “The general feeling is shock and fear for the future. Personally, I feel extremely anxious – even to the point of packing my bags and moving out as soon as possible.”

Like Haider, whose Freedom Party entered the Austrian government in February, Tudor ran a protest campaign promising a tough law-and-order regime – to the point where he promised he would rule “by machine gun.”

He appealed to the desperate and disaffected masses in a country where the average salary is $100 a month, 40 percent of the population lives on little more than one dollar a day, and inflation is estimated at 40 percent.

But, unlike Haider, Tudor has a history of vicious, overt and outspoken anti-Semitism.

He is a poet who came to fame as a lackey of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was deposed and executed in the Romanian revolution of December 1989.

He transformed himself into an outspoken nationalist who published magazines and newspapers filled with vitriolic anti-Semitic attacks and xenophobic diatribes also directed against Gypsies, also known as Roma, and ethnic Hungarians.

“Many of his most extreme attacks were directed personally against Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen,” said a Bucharest Jewish community member who asked not to be identified. Rosen, who died in 1994 at the age of 81, had been a high-profile campaigner against anti-Semitism.

During Iliescu’s tenure as president in the first part of the 1990s, Tudor repeatedly attacked Iliescu’s efforts to maintain warm relations with Israel, to acknowledge Romania’s complicity in the Holocaust and to show support for Jewish causes.

His party’s newspaper, Romania Mare, accused Iliescu of “selling out to the Zionists.”

A report, Anti-Semitism Worldwide, funded by the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress, states that Tudor “is obsessed with the alleged Jewish campaign to cooperate with Romania’s enemies in order to ‘destabilize Romania’ and ‘falsify history.’ “

Whether or not Tudor becomes president, his party will form the main opposition force in Parliament – and will thus play a pivotal role in the country’s future.

Iliescu’s left-wing, former communist Party of Social Democracy got an estimated 37 to 38 percent of votes in both houses of Parliament.

But Tudor’s Greater Romania Party came in second with an estimated 20 percent to 21 percent – a huge surge forward since local elections in June, when the party received little more than 2 percent of the vote.

These results were a crushing blow to the five-party centrist coalition that ruled Romania for the past four years. The results represented a dramatic backlash against the widespread corruption, economic failure, and bitter political infighting that characterized the outgoing government. But in effect, they left Romanians without an effective western-style democratic political voice.

“The results are what I expected,” said Hungarian Jewish sociologist Andras Kovacs, an expert on anti-Semitism and nationalism at Budapest’s Central European University. “Countries can’t get rid of their own history.”

He predicted that, with the defeat of centrist democratic parties, Romania would be ostracized by other European countries whoever wins the presidency.

But it was the strong showing of Tudor and his Greater Romania Party that caused particular dismay.

“There was some control on Haider,” said the Jewish businessman in Bucharest. “When his party came in second” last year and subsequently became part of the Austrian government, “people went onto the streets by the thousands to declare that Haider was not Austria. But no one is going on to the streets to say that Tudor is not Romania.

“I’m really afraid of what can happen,” he said. “About what the angry young people around Tudor will do. Will they march through the streets like the Fascists used to do? Will they go out and attack synagogues?”

Jews were not the only Romanians expressing fear and dismay.

“Romania entered a new era on Monday,” said the independent Romanian daily Evenimentul Zilei. “It becomes a European country suspected of nationalist excesses without a democratic opposition on which people can count.”

Said another newspaper, Adevarul, “In November 2000 we are the only case in Central and Eastern Europe where economic reforms have not succeeded” and “the ascension of the Greater Romania Party will raise great questions in the West about the success of political reforms.”

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