Iliescu, Ion (b. 1930)

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ILIESCU, ION (b. 1930)


Romanian politician.

A founder and leader of the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PDSR, subsequently PSD) until 2004, Ion Iliescu has been one of a handful of politicians most influential in Romania's transition from its communist dictatorial past to a government prepared for membership in the European Union.

Iliescu, the son of a Communist Party member, became involved in the Union of Communist Youth when he was fourteen. He attended the Bucharest Polytechnic and later the Energy Institute in Moscow. After graduating from college in 1955 he returned to Romania as a researcher at the Institute for Energy Studies in Bucharest. His path through the party was more spectacular, as he moved very quickly to found first a Union of High School Students' Associations in 1948 and subsequently a Union of Students' Associations in 1956. It was in this position that he was able to show his full loyalty to the party and its harsh policies. Such actions catapulted him into the political center at a moment when the party was making a transition from the aging government of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej (1901–1965) to the younger guard, whose leader became Nicolae Ceauşescu (1918–1989). In 1965, at the age of thirty-five, Iliescu became a candidate member of the party's Central Committee and three years later he received full membership in this body. By 1968, with the help of Ceauşescu, by then leader of Romania, Iliescu reached the highest position of power he was to hold in the Communist Party, as member of the Political Committee. Between 1967 and 1971 he served as Minister of Youth.

But in 1971 Iliescu was sidelined from the position of secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee. It will probably never be known whether the conflict with Ceauşescu was over ideology, whether it was over Iliescu's dislike of Ceauşescu's increasingly nepotistic bent, or whether it was over Ceauşescu's lack of trust toward this ambitious man. It was most likely a combination of these factors. Yet Iliescu's resulting marginalization, together with his frustrated ambitions as a politician, became important elements for his future political career. During the following decades Iliescu remained involved in party politics, as deputy chairman of the Iaşi County council (1974–1979), a regionally powerful position, then moved on to head the National Waters Council (1979–1984), and subsequently become director of the Technical Publishing House (1984–1989).

On 22 December 1989, as crowds were gathering in the Palace Square in Bucharest booing President Ceauşescu and his wife, Iliescu emerged suddenly as the leader of the "spontaneous" Revolution inside the Palace. Why Iliescu happened to be there is unclear and suggests that the Palace events were a coup masked by the street spontaneous rioting. Minutes after the Ceauşescus (later to be captured, summarily tried, and executed) fled in a helicopter, a National Salvation Front was created with Iliescu as its leader. This provisional government held power until 20 May 1990, when the first purportedly free elections since the 1930s were held. The brief period before this election was marred by instability, some of it real and some of it manufactured, which made it impossible for other political groups with a strong organization and platform to emerge, ensuring Iliescu's sweeping election as president. His party, now called the Democratic National Salvation Front, held a staunchly conservative line with regard to privatizing the economy, especially banks and large industries, and also liberalizing some of the important aspects of public life, and was dubbed "neo-communist" by most political observers. Yet Iliescu won another four-year term in 1992, with a platform emphasizing stability and national unity. In 1993 his party was renamed the Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR), which was later combined with the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSDR) and took the name Social Democratic Party (PSD).

After four years of economic stagnation and in the midst of rampant corruption Iliescu was defeated in 1996 by Emil Constantinescu (b. 1939), the leader of the Democratic Convention. Going into opposition was not an entirely new experience for Iliescu, but operating in a democratic system did transform Iliescu's approach to politics and the party he led. Together with Adrian Năstase (b. 1950), a younger ambitious prominent leader in his party, Iliescu rebuilt the regional branches of PDSR and invigorated the youth groups of the party. Maintaining a staunch stance on preserving the well-being of the workers employed in the increasingly bankrupt heavy industry, Iliescu also refashioned himself as a supporter of privatization and foreign investment.

In December 2000 Iliescu won elections again, the last mandate for which he was eligible. This time, his election was facilitated not so much by the platform of his party as by the opponent he faced in the runoff elections, the radical right-wing leader of the Greater Romania Party, Corneliu Vadim Tudor (b. 1949). During this last mandate Iliescu was more successful in transforming his party from neo-communist to social democrat, better equipped to encourage greater faith in Romania's democratic and economic potential in view of hopes for EU accession. Still, corruption in his party and Iliescu's own distasteful last measures while in power—giving the highest Romanian decoration to Vadim Tudor and trying to pardon one of the most disliked criminals of the 1990s, Miron Cosma (b. 1954)—played an important role in the demise of the Social Democrats from power in December 2004, and to their continued internal crisis in the aftermath. Since then, Iliescu has taken a secondary role in Romanian politics, as senator in the parliament.

See alsoRomania.


Carey, Henry F., ed. Romania since 1989: Politics, Economics, and Society. Lanham, Md., 2004.

Light, Duncan, and David Phinnemore, eds. Post-Communist Romania: Coming to Terms with Transition. Houndmills, Basingstoke; Hampshire, U.K.; and New York, 2001.

Pasti, Vladimir. The Challenges of Transition: Romania in Transition. New York, 1997.

Siani-Davies, Peter . The Romanian Revolution of December 1989. Ithaca, N.Y., 2005.

Stan, Lavinia, ed. Romania in Transition. Aldershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt., 1997.

Tismaneanu, Vladimir. Marele soc: din finalul unui secol scurt. Ion Iliescu în dialog cu Vladimir Tismaneanu: Despre comunism, postcomunism, democratie. Bucharest, 2004.

Maria Bucur