ROME, Dec. 12 (JTA) – One of Europe’s most notorious right-wing extremists lost the runoff vote in Romania’s presidential elections, but he vowed to continue making himself heard.
In Sunday’s second round vote, Corneliu Vadim Tudor lost by a 2-1 margin to Ion Iliescu, who served as Romania’s president from 1990 to 1996.
Still, Tudor’s Greater Romania Party will become Romania’s main opposition force in Parliament as a result of its showing in an earlier round of balloting in late November.
Vowing not to go quietly into obscurity, Tudor warned in a post-election statement, “This anti-national government will find it difficult to overlook us in Parliament.”
A flamboyant publisher infamous for printing anti-Semitic and other xenophobic diatribes, Tudor, 51, claimed fraud and vowed to contest the vote.
Iliescu, the 70-year-old former Communist who scored the crushing victory over Tudor, told cheering supporters Sunday night that the vote was “a categorical rejection of extremism, xenophobia and totalitarian temptations at a crucial moment for the nation.
“We promise we are going to accelerate the process of the dignified integration of Romania into the European Union and NATO,” he said. “As the head of state, I will assure that this promise becomes reality.”
Iliescu joined Jewish and other observers in warning that Tudor could gain ground if the nation’s catastrophic economic and social problems are not resolved.
“The situation in the country is dramatic,” Iliescu told the Reuters news agency, warning that Tudor could “gain politically” if the new Romanian government fails “to give satisfaction to the people that there are possibilities to improve the economic situation.”
With more than 98 percent of the vote counted, Iliescu had nearly 67 percent, compared to Tudor’s 33 percent.
In first-round elections Nov. 26, Iliescu came in first out of a dozen candidates, with Tudor a surprise second.
A spokesman for the European Council of Jewish Communities said Tudor’s strength among one-third of the Romanian populace is part of a worrying trend in Europe of growing support for far-right parties.
“Of course, we are happy that Tudor did not come through with his presidential bid,” he said. “But it is clear that nationalist movements are strong now in many countries – in Switzerland, France, Austria as well as Romania.
“Building democracy is a process that takes years,” he said. “We need vigilance and education in order to face the situation in Romania and also to fight it.”
Tudor appealed to angry young people desperate for a change in a poverty-stricken country, and where cronyism, corruption and economic failure mark the political mainstream.
Iliescu was deeply unpopular during his previous term as president and was voted out of office by liberals in 1996.
But Romania’s media and liberal parties threw their weight behind him in the latest voting, warning bluntly that Romania would suffer political and economic isolation if Tudor won. International Jewish organizations also had warned of repercussions if Tudor became president.
Many voters in fact chose Iliescu as the lesser of two evils.
“He was the ‘better bad,’ ” said one Jewish source.
A newspaper commentator compared the vote to a choice “between AIDS and cancer.”
And, as one of Romania’s newspapers said in a headline Monday, “Better a retiree than a dictator.”
Tudor’s crushing defeat in Sunday’s runoff was a relief for Romanian Jews, who had feared for the future of both their country and their community had he won.
About 12,000 Jews, mainly elderly, live in Romania. About half live in Bucharest.
The Romanian Jewish Federation issued a statement before Sunday’s vote saying that Tudor had been “a staunch enemy of the Jews” in Romania for many years and had repeatedly displayed anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
This included backing the rehabilitation of Romania’s pro-Nazi World War II leader Ion Antonescu, and lavishing insults on figures such as Romania’s late Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen.
“It is the duty of the federation, which has always fought the dangerous revival of extremism, to condemn the anti-Semitic deeds and words of Corneliu Vadim Tudor,” it said. “Mr. Tudor displays a xenophobia which endangers normal cohabitation between the majority and national minorities.
“We issue a warning both in Romania and abroad against Tudor’s xenophobic activities, which aim to fool naive people and to poison relations” among different ethnic groups, the statement said.
During his previous tenure as president, Iliescu took concrete steps to commemorate the Holocaust and support Jewish causes.
He met with Jewish leaders at home and abroad, and he made repeated statements committing his government to fight anti-Semitism.
During the 1996 presidential campaign, which Iliescu lost, right-wing extremists, including Tudor’s party, accused Iliescu and his allies of favoritism toward Jews. They also alleged that the then-U.S. ambassador, Alfred Moses, who is Jewish, was trying to make secret deals with Iliescu to foster Jewish interests.
Just the same – reflecting the murkiness and cynicism of Romanian politics – Jews at the time expressed skepticism at some of Iliescu’s actions, claiming they were aimed at winning political support from abroad.