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Vol 2, No 17
2 May 2000
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Catherine LovattThink Global,
Vote Local

Catherine Lovatt

On Thursday 20 April 2000, the official campaign for the Romanian local elections was launched. The election is set for 4 June and could provide the pattern for the general elections due to be held in November.

The local administration in Romania is based on local autonomy and the decentralisation of public services. Local councils and Mayors run villages and towns and are elected by the citizens of their particular village or town. Over the past four years, several elected mayors have been accused of dubious dealings, and a move away from this state of affairs is increasingly desired.

Local administration is co-ordinated by regional administration, and county councils are elected by the population of the region. The Government nominates a prefect for each county and one for the City of Bucharest. Prefects are the official local representatives of the County.

The Romanian Constitution stipulates that a local election shall be held every four years.

Electoral regulations will be published by the Government and distributed to all prefects by 5 May. All nominations for County Counsellors and Mayors should also be received by this date. Any opposition to candidates is to be resolved by 13 May.

Although only a brief description of the electoral procedure has thus far been handed down, the campaign appears to be highly organised and has provided a legitimate footing for the electoral squabbling that has been enacted since the beginning of the year.

One of the most recent debacles occurred between Teodor Melescanu, leader of the Romanian National Party (PNR), and Ion Iliescu, leader of the Romanian Social Democracy Party (PDSR). Verbal criticisms were bandied about in an attempt to weaken support for the opponent. (see last week's news review)

The launch of the electoral campaign allows for 45 days of uncompromising local political battle.

Local interest

Public interest in the elections has been increasing. The ISROP opinion poll recorded that, so far, the year 2000 has shown signs of "heightened electoral interest." (Nine O'clock, 19 April 2000) The poll claimed that there had been a drop in the number of undecided voters from 40 to 50 per cent down to 30 per cent (Nine O'clock, 19 April 2000) suggesting that Romanians have become more interested in their local representatives. The ISROP poll also predicted a turnout greater than 50 percent as Romanians, discontent with present circumstances, demand a change.

The widespread discontent over the past four years is largely due to scandal upon scandal within local administration, one of the most notable of which was that surrounding the Mayor of Cluj, Gheorghe Funar.

Funar was accused of deliberately restricting investments in Cluj. He was charged with the abuse of power against individuals and aggravated abuse against the public interest. In light of the accusations, the prefect of Cluj, Vasile Salcudean, suspended Funar from his position of Mayor. Alongside these charges Funar was accused of favouring his son who holds shares in several local companies. The Court ruled in Funar's favour and reinstated him as Mayor.

Gheorghe Funar has led a colourful political career as a leader of the Party of National Unity in Romania (PUNR) and later as secretary general of the Greater Romania Party (PRM). Both parties have nationalist leanings, and this could explain his attitude towards the Magyar Democratic Union in Romania (UDMR).

Funar is renowned for his opinionated statements and actions against the Hungarians. In 1994, the UDMR complained to the Iliescu administration about the allegedly unconstitutional actions of Funar's party. This complaint was sparked by the decision to change the inscription on the statue of the Hungarian King, Matei Corvin, and to build a commemorative statue of the Romanian interwar leader, General Antonescu. In 1996, Funar unveiled a plaque suggesting that the Hungarian King was, in fact, Romanian.

Funar's nationalistic tendencies have been further exemplified by his obsession with the Romanian flag. One of his most extreme measures was to paint park benches in the colours of the tricolour - red yellow and blue. Despite Funar's eccentricities, a victory for his third term in office is on the horizon due to his political skill an electoral management.

Further cases of scandal have not always worked so favourably for their participants. More recently, Marin Lutu, Mayor of Bucharest District Four, was arrested under the suspicion of dubious dealings concerning the distribution of commercial spaces in Sudului Square. He has also been reprimanded for the purchase of several apartments and villas. On 23 February 2000, Lutu was charged with intellectual fraud, using forged material and the abuse of duty against a person's interests. Lutu was also involved with several scandals surrounding his personal life.

Personal scandals, likewise, afflicted Viorel Lis, General Mayor of Bucharest. Lis came to his position in 1998 after defeating his rival, Sorin Oprescu, by a mere one percent. On 10 February 2000, he resigned from his party, the National Peasant Christian Democratic Party (PNŢCD), to become chairman of the New Generation Party (PNG). Lis has been well publicised in the Romanian media for his sordid affairs and for a scandal involving the allotment of apartments. This latter scandal saw the arrest of his secretary, Gabi Ionita, who was charged with fraud and the use of fakes.

Electoral barometer

Public discontent with present local administration is hardly surprising and can help explain the greater interest in the outcome of the local elections. However, the proximity of the local and general elections could also be a contributing factor in heightening public interest. The media hype that goes hand in hand with a general election will also incorporate the local elections, raising publicity and encouraging awareness. And, of course, the outcome of the local elections could provide the pattern for the November elections generating further curiosity.

The local elections could also provide an indication to the political players what policies are going to win votes.

Nonetheless, local elections in the past have appeared to be more closely related to the individual and their personal charisma rather than political policies, as is the possible case with the previous election of Funar. On the larger political scale policies can hold much more influence.

The launch of the official local election campaign has opened the floodgates for months of intriguing political battles. Romanians will be bombarded by political and personal programmes that will either grab their attention or encourage them to shut out politics altogether. However, the past four years have illustrated certain complications in local leadership which have partly clouded the administration of local government.

Many Romanians desire change; the local elections and later, the general elections, are seen as a means to achieve this. Interest in the elections is increasing and could ultimately bring some unexpected results.

Catherine Lovatt, 28 April 2000

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