Antonescu key to 2nd round of Romania presidential vote

By bne IntelliNews November 23, 2009

Graham Stack in Bucharest -

The first round of voting in Romania's hard-fought presidential election campaign saw incumbent President Traian Basescu and Mircea Geoana of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (PSD) go through to a second round. This leaves Crin Antonescu of the National Liberal Party (PNL), who came in third with a provisional 21% of the vote, as the potential kingmaker - and analysts expect him to tell his supporters to vote for Geoana.

Both Basescu (with 33%) and Geoana (with 29%) were quick to claim Antonescu's vote their own in the immediate aftermath of the elections held on November 22. As the exit poll results came in, Basescu totalled his and Antonescu's vote to call the elections, "a profound victory for the right;" Geoana thanked all who had voted for oppositional candidates "and especially those who voted for Crin Antonescu."

Analysts see Antonescu's voters split between their desire to remove Basescu and their right-wing misgivings about Geoana and his Communist successor party PSD. Basescu was leader of the centre-right Liberal Democratic Party (PDL) until becoming president, when he was required by law to end party affiliation.

According to Dan Sultanescu, general director of the infopolitic analytical centre, "in all probability, most liberals will vote against Basescu. The decisive moment will be Crin Antonescu's announcement of his support for Mircea Geoana, which is conditioned by two factors: a governmental coalition after the election between PSD and PNL, and Mircea Geoana nominating Klaus Iohannis, the impressive mayor of Sibiu, as the next prime minister."

Alexandru Toth, research director at Gallup Romania, doubts that Antonescu will actually tell his voters to vote for Geoana. "But I'm sure that most of the Liberals will vote against Basescu. Our polls show that the large majority of the voters (75%-80%) of candidates who are unlikely to get in the second round will vote for Geoana, not Basescu," he tells bne.

But, as ever, it's not over until it's over. Catalin Augustin Stoica, pollster and director of the Centre of Urban and Regional Sociology (CURS), warns against relying too much on polls regarding the second round of voting. "Answers to poll questions about the second round should be taken with a grain of salt. Against the backdrop of a tense and controversial campaign, it is too early to predict how voters will react in the run-off election. I would speculate that many of Antonescu's voters would not go to vote in the second round if their candidate won't be on the ballot."

"All in all, it is too early to predict how things will unfold in the second round," says Stoica. "In addition, I expect that the campaign for the second round will be very tough, with tonnes of innuendo, false accusations, rumours, personal attacks."

20 years on

If, as is likely, Geoana takes the presidency in the second round on December 6, this will only confirm a rule of post-Communist Romanian politics: no incumbent president has ever been re-elected for a second term. Romanians, like many in the countries behind the old Iron Curtain, are eternally disgruntled with their democracy, though they like to simply vote out their presidents, whereas in many post-Soviet states the electorates have even voted out democracy itself.

Another rule confirmed is that, for all the celebrations of the fall of Communism 20 years ago, the consolidation of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe paradoxically owes a lot to the successor parties of the respective former national communist parties. In most countries, including Romania, the former "Communist Party" morphed into social democratic parties that have frequently governed. When not in government, theses parties have formed a powerful opposition.

Despite the horrors of Ceausescu's regime, as evoked by this year's literature Nobel Prize winner Herta Muller, for 10 out of Romania's 20 years of democracy, the president was Ion Iliescu, a former top-ranking Communist Party official under Ceausescu, whose role in the violence of December 1989, and the summary execution of Ceausescu, has never been properly cleared up. It was, however, Iliescu, with the support of his Communist-successor PSD, who took Romania into Nato and paved the way for EU membership. Iliescu was removed from the leadership of the PSD in 2004, but still acts as its elder statesman.

And underlying how the PSD has, at least superficially, changed into a social democratic party, Mircea Geoana is a cosmopolitan former diplomat with degrees from the Paris National School of Administration and Harvard Business School, who became Romania's ambassador to the US in 1997 at the tender age of 39. In 2005, he ousted Iliescu from the leadership of the PSD in a surprise vote.

The democratic normalization of the former Communist Parties was surely one of the least anticipated developments 20 years ago. Professor Adrian Pop of Romania's National School of Political and Administrative Studies agrees: "The PSD is today treated just as any other political party."

"The 1989 'Revolution' is still a controversial topic in Romania. [But] 20 years after the collapse of Ceausescu's regime, Romanians' agenda is filled with issues related to the current economic crisis - unemployment, wages, pensions etc. The events from December 1989, unfortunately, are not a major concern for most Romanians," says Stoica.

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