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Vol 2, No 29
4 September 2000
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Electoral Whirlwinds
Romania prepares for the big election show
Delia Dumitrica

November 2000 is the projected month for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Romania. Is this a time for change or a return to a not so distant past? Regardless of what the future may hold, regardless of all predictions, one thing is for sure: Romanians have never been more disappointed than now.

The political stage is busier than ever. After months of speculation, four names have already been thrown into the hat: Ion Iliescu, Theodor Stolojan, Mugur Isarescu and Petre Roman. All four are well-known figures: a former president, two former Prime Ministers and a current Prime Minister (and former governor of the National Bank).

The candidates

Ion Iliescu was the first President after the 1989 revolution and remained in the post for seven years, thus becoming the most important decision-maker and policy-builder within the new democratic setting of Romania. Still a leftist at heart (but also in his statements), Iliescu played the card of populism and won.

The privatization process was sacrificed for electoral reasons, and as a result huge industrial plants were paid to be bankrupt. Nationalism was another ace up his sleeve, diverting attention from the flourishing corruption process and from the newly born Mafia-like structures, toward minorities, especially Hungarians and Roma. Of course this slowed down the democratization process considerably, determining the delay of Romania's application for integration into the European Union (EU).

Although now politically independent from any party, Theodor Stolojan is no stranger to the former Iliescu regime. As one of Iliescu's prime ministers, he had direct access and control over the bureaucratic structures and over the privatization process. Received with enthusiasm, Stolojan had stirred up great expectations within the masses. He was seen as a technocrat, having the know-how to quickly repair what 45 years of Communism had damaged. Yet, his contribution to the restoration of responsible democratic capitalism was was disappointing in light of what was anticipated. As a result, he left the post of prime minister and became Romania's representative with the World Bank.

Another former Prime Minister, Petre Roman, is certainly a charismatic leader. However, in his current role as Foreign Minister his charisma has been more effective internationally than locally over the last four years. The first Prime Minister after 1989, Roman was Iliescu's partner for a short time. Quite different in their approaches and objectives, they quickly separated, and Roman resigned from his positions in the government and Iliescu's party.

Roman's own party (the Democratic Party, PD) became an important partner for the present Democratic coalition, the Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR). Petre Roman himself became more concerned with his image outside the country than within, where he has been relegated into the shadows by a relative newcomer, Traian Băsescu. Băsescu managed to win the Bucharest mayoral seat in the May 2000 local elections, posing as a tough, determined leader.

Finally, Mugur Isărescu who was invited by an almost unanimous parliamentary vote to become Prime Minister when Radu Vasile was forced to step down last Christmas. Formerly the Governor of the National Bank of Romania Isărescu has worked under both the Iliescu administration and the present government of President Emil Constantinescu. Quite charismatic, with a clear discourse and an image of skilled technocrat, Isărescu has, so far, the greatest chance of attracting the votes of the dissatisfied electorate. Even more, Isărescu has managed to acquire a favorable stature internationally.

As Governor of the National Bank he kept clear of the widespread corruption, while at the same time maintaining important contacts with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. His refusal to sign on as a candidate for any given party brought him a bonus in the eyes of the electorate, who perceive all parties as inevitably linked with the governmental failings of the past.

When president Emil Constantinescu announced his decision to step down from the presidentials in early July, something that should have happened a long time ago was forced into being: the political stage had to reshape itself. Mass disappointment and frustration with the lack of accountability on the part of politicians has become evident over the recent months when scandal upon scandal hit the headlines. Responsibility has remained anonymous. The thirst for power, or rather the long acquired habit of not paying attention to the public has left badly needed political reforms waiting. Still the options do remain somehow limited.

Confidence and concern

With unexpected success in the May local elections, the Liberal Party (PNL) decided to divorce the CDR, breaking the winning formula for the 1996 elections. After a fractious period of rule with their coalition partners, the Liberals have decided on a new path. Under the strong leadership of Valeriu Stoica, currently the Minister of Justice, the Liberals have thrown themselves in the electoral fight, supporting former Prime Minister, Theodor Stolojan.

Unfortunately, for many Stolojan is a figure of the former Iliescu administration (1991—1996) and in spite of his political independence, he seems to have made a poor impression. He is a technocrat but he was also the top decision-maker for the reform process during his mandate. Consequently, he shares responsibility for the economic and democratic failures of a regime he is now blaming for Romania's current economic crisis. Yet, around 20 percent of the electorate would vote for him according to one of the latest CURS opinion polls held between 7 August and 10 August (Romania Libera, 17 August 2000).

Nonetheless, the Liberals are also confronted by internal conflicts. After debunking the old leadership (the Liberals from 1945, imprisoned by the communists), Valeriu Stoica, PNL's Vice-President, tested his power within the party by confronting Finance Minister Decebal Traian Remeş. The latter's decision to support the present Prime Minister, Mugur Isărescu in the electoral fight caused an explosion of anger amongst the Liberals who were determined, under Stoica's leadership, to stand by their candidate.

Without considering developments on the political scene, the Liberals may kick themselves for having rushed into adopting a tactic that could turn out to be a political disaster. Running on their own, for an undecided, depressed and frustrated electorate, could actually help the success of the former president Ion Iliescu and his Party for Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR).

Victorious Iliescu?

Indeed, Iliescu seems to be relaxed. If we rely upon opinion polls, he looks like the winner, at least for now, with 36 percent of the votes according to the CURS opinion poll. (Romania Libera, 17 August 2000) Iliescu and the PDSR are lucky, enjoying the benefits of relatively stable support. As long as the ruling coalition is crumbling, Iliescu can only gain.

The hard fight will be in the second round, when Iliescu will have to face either Stolojan, Isărescu or maybe even Roman (although chances for him being in the second round are quite scarce). At present, opposition to Iliescu is divided between Stolojan and Isărescu, and more recently Roman. But the second round will be a two-horse race and that is where the real battle for votes will come.

However, Iliescu may have some reasons to fear. After weeks of silence Mugur Isărescu finally announced his decision to run for President having gathered 300,000 supporting signatures (the number is required by law for any candidate to the presidentials). As far as the polls say, and as far as the mass media is concerned, he seems to be a powerful alternative.

Moreover, when Isărescu declined the offer to run for the "remaining" CDR coalition, he proved himself to be more determined and strong-willed than first thought. His actions forced the ruling coalition to re-think its strategy whilst Isărescu displayed to the electorate that he is determined not to accept any political compromises. His image as a skillful technocrat and his international image as promoter of EU integration are important cards to play. He might over-run Theodor Stolojan, yet the question remains: where will Stolojan's votes go?

With a relatively stable proportion of votes, Iliescu has nothing to fear from the first round. Yet, once the opposing candidate is determined, the votes previously divided between Stolojan, Isărescu and Roman will have to be redistributed somehow. If Iliescu manages to convince that he is closer to one of the three, than he will actually collect another percentage of the votes, and will become the next president. The question of setting the election agenda in the second round becomes essential to understanding who the victor will be.

Tough guys

Petre Roman is the latest name on the candidates' list. Roman's credibility was heavily affected by his association with Iliescu in the early days after the revolution. Still, he has enjoyed a constant ten percent of the votes with his Party and, up until now, Roman was his party. Authoritarian and proud, he has on several occasions proved to be the 'tough guy' in his own courtyard.

The unexpected success of the Democrat leader Traian Băsescu in the local elections pushed the Democrats to the top of the public agenda once more. Băsescu has become headline news since being elected as Bucharest mayor because of his hard-hitting policies. For example, his attempts to stamp out corruption on Bucharest streets by dismantling illegal kiosks. He is enjoying tremendous success for his tough, almost dictatorial measures in Bucharest but his success is more personal than political. Băsescu is the PD voters' favourite, not as a Democrat but as a strong leader.

Under these circumstances, Roman's move to run for the presidentials and to abandon the ruling coalition (under whose umbrella he participated in government from 1996 until now) is rather questionable. The risk is that he will be perceived as an egocentric leader, concerned more with personal success than with the future of his party and maybe even of the country.

Silent politics

The Romanian political scene is in turmoil. Up until now, no official political programmes have been launched, leaving the door open for further alliances. This is also an indicator that politicians are less interested in supporting their own ideas and values, than in attracting alliances that could open their way to success.

Many political actors are staying silent, caught up in discussing the latest declarations of the Peasants, the Liberals or the Social Democrats. Consequently, an important part of the political stage is not yet heard. For a change, extremists like the Greater Romania Party (PRM), with around 10 percent of the votes, if we believe the opinion polls, have not expressed their support for any candidate. However, it is likely that they will give their votes to Iliescu.

The Hungarians have also remained silent. The Democratic Union of Romanian Hungarians (UDMR), the sole political representative of the Hungarian minority, usually brings in seven percent of the votes, .

The Alliance for Romania (ApR), a relatively new party, has never participated in a presidential election before. The first to mention Stolojan's name in the presidential context, the Alliance is now tormented by internal fights and accusations of collaborations with Iliescu's party. Nonetheless, in spite of the dubious loyalties within ApR, it is possible to envisage a rapprochement with the Liberals.

Lastly, the CDR is certainly not enjoying the same support as in 1996 when it won the elections. This is partly because of its failure to stop corruption and to redress the economic situation and partly because of its internal lack of cohesion and common strategy. Anchored in the pre-1945 political reality and prestige, coalition members, the National Christian Democrat Party (PNŢCD) have understood a little bit too late the need for a younger and more active generation of leaders.

PNŢCD inflexibility in dealing with the Liberals and the Democrats and their assumed position of leaders in the coalition may have brought about their failure. CDR 2000 has only managed to attract marginals, the National Christian Democrat Alliance (ANCD, former premier Victor Ciorbea's party, a rebel wing of the Peasants), the Right Forces Union (UFD), the Romanian Ecologists Federation (FER) and other civic organizations, to back them in the coming elections.

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The parties are waiting for the dust to settle, poised to jump at the right moment once they see where victory lies. Unfortunately, without them any predictions of Romania's political future are useless. Opinion polls may give an impression of immediate trends but they do not catch the deep disappointment Romanians express when discussing politics. Corruption, a constantly depreciating currency, a mentality deeply rooted within Communist passivity and lack of responsibility, and a depressing economic situation are much closer to Romanians than intellectual debates and promises of European integration.

It is not yet a question of going back to the old regime. But it is a question of speeding up the reform process and of choosing the democratic way as a free market. Merely overthrowing the communist doctrine does not necessarily lead to liberal democracy. This is why Romanians say nowadays that in 2007 when Romania gets into the EU, the headlines will spell: "Success! In spite of Romania's opposition, we finally managed to drag her into the Union!"

Delia Dumitrica, 4 September 2000

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