While rival politicians and the media scrutinise the candidates in the US presidential race for the minutest evidence of wrongdoing, on the other side of the Atlantic in Romania the situation is rather different. Many of the candidates for next month’s local elections - and those expected to stand for parliamentary seats this autumn - are under investigation and some have even been convicted.
In April, former president Traian Basescu announced he had decided not to run in the election for Bucharest mayor after he became a suspect in a money laundering case dating back to 2000. Basescu was expected to be the candidate for his People’s Movement Party.
Basescu’s move was quite unusual, as many other tarnished candidates have continued to stand. Romania’s largest party, the Social Democratic Party (PSD), in particular has ignored scandals affecting some of its top officials. On April 27, the party announced it would continue to support its leader Liviu Dragnea even after he was given a two-year suspended sentence for voter manipulation in a 2012 referendum in which the PSD hoped to impeach Basescu.
Instead, the PSD decided to expel its executive president Valeriu Zgonea, who was also the speaker of the lower house of parliament, after he suggested Dragnea should step down after his conviction, saying the party “does not deserve to carry an image affected by some of its leaders’ problems”.
Not only that, the PSD now seems to be lining up former prime minister Victor Ponta to replace Zgonea as speaker. This would represent a political comeback for Ponta, who stepped down after mass anti-government protests in November, but it is unlikely to benefit the party’s image given that Ponta is currently being tried on 17 counts of forgery, money-laundering and complicity in tax evasion.
Another influential former PSD member, Marian Vanghelie, said he planned to stand for re-election as the mayor of Bucharest district 5 despite being suspended from the post due to ongoing investigations for abuse of power, bribe taking and money-laundering.
“I think I will win with 70% backing, why should I withdraw from the race?” Vanghelie said, according to Mediafax news agency.
When parties do try to find a clean candidate, this can become an undignified scramble. This was demonstrated by the PSD’s main rival, the centre right National Liberal Party (PNL) and its struggle to find a candidate for the Bucharest mayor post.
The party is now on its fourth choice of candidate, former justice minister Catalin Predoiu, who leads the local PNL branch. Its initial selection, MEP Cristian Busoi, was swapped for Ludovic Orban after polls showed he had a better chance of winning. Orban, however, withdrew from the race after the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) opened a criminal investigation against him. The party’s third choice, Marian Munteanu, a former member of the anti-communist resistance, was also forced to step down over allegations of extremism and anti-Semitism.
Given the steadily rising number of politicians and government officials investigated by Romania’s highly active DNA, it is perhaps not surprising that parties are struggling. In her annual summary of the DNA’s work, the directorate’s head Laura Kovesi said that 2015 was yet another record year with more than 1,250 defendants indicted for high and medium level corruption. Those sent to trial included one prime minister (Ponta), five ministers and 21 MPs. At the local level, one third of all presidents of county councils were indicted, and more than 100 mayors and county council presidents sent to trial.
In a May 5 statement, the Romanian arm of NGO Transparency International pointed to the large number of candidates for the June 5 local elections who are facing criminal proceedings, are under judicial control or who have even received suspended sentences for corruption.
“We appreciate that this situation, unprecedented in scale in other modern democracies, but which appears as a theme within the Romanian public life, is likely to bring into question the credibility of all of us and the country, and to affect the negotiation power and representation at international level,” the statement said.
The local elections are relatively important given their timing just a few months before the parliamentary elections. Control of local authorities can benefit parliamentary candidates in the run-up to the election. For the PSD in particular, a strong showing in the local elections could be critical as the party is rumoured to be planning to put together a new coalition to oust the current interim government.
The lack of care for its image might seem strange, but being investigated - or even convicted - is not necessarily an obstacle to getting elected in Romania. “Sometimes people stick with their political preference - left or right - and don’t care too much about the integrity or political programmes of the candidates. This is not the case for the whole population but there are enough people who adopt this strategy to influence the election result,” Adrian Moraru, director adjunct of the Institute for Public Policy (IPP) Bucharest, told bne IntelliNews.
This was demonstrated in the 2012 local elections when two candidates were elected despite being under arrest. Dumitru Ruse won the mayoral election in Magurele three days after he was detained in a bribery cases, while Jilava mayor Adrian Mladin was re-elected with 60% of the vote after he was sentenced for taking a €50,000 bribe. The latter became the butt of many jokes in Romania since Jilava is where the main Bucharest prison is located.
This is not to say Romanians don’t care when their officials are corrupt. Twice in the last two years mass eruptions of public anger have dramatically changed the political scene.
Thousands of overseas Romanians were unable to vote in the first round of the 2014 presidential elections as insufficient polling stations were set up in cities with a large concentration of diaspora Romanians such as London and Paris. Foul play by Ponta’s government was suspected, since the PSD’s candidate Ponta clearly benefitted - diaspora Romanians typically favour the centre right candidate, in this case Klaus Iohannis. This sparked mass demonstrations across the country and a huge swing in favour of Iohannis, who was elected president after the second round.
A year later, tens of thousands of people again took to the streets after dozens of young people were killed in a fire at the Club Colectiv nightclub. It emerged that the nightclub did not have a permit for its firework display that night, rousing Romanians to fury over the deaths that appeared to be a direct consequence of official corruption. This time Ponta, who had already been charged by DNA prosecutors, stepped down and his cabinet was replaced by a government of technocrats.
As the elections approach, public anger is again mounting, this time in another scandal related to the Colectiv tragedy. 27 people died on the night of October 27, but the death toll later increased to 64, as many of those injured in the fire fell victim to infection in hospital. An investigation by Gazeta Sporturilor recently revealed that the company supplying disinfectants to hospitals had been selling watered down products - again corruption had had a direct effect in taking human lives.
Demonstrations have started again in Bucharest, but the numbers are small compared to the estimated 25,000 that took to the streets last autumn.
This appears to be less a lack of anger about the situation than the dismal realisation that there is currently no better option than the technocratic government. In November, protesters had a clear aim: they wanted Ponta’s government to resign. While the interim government headed by Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos has been a disappointment, few people think a return to a party political government would be better. People are also disillusioned with Iohannis. The former mayor of the provincial town of Sibiu was seen as an alternative to the corrupt political establishment but little has changed since he came to power.
“People are mild in their criticisms because if the current government goes, it would be back to business as usual. Toppling this government would only bring back the socialists who everybody hates anyway,” says Moraru. “I think there will be a lot of bitterness after the election, but nothing will be gained by going to the streets.”
One of the demands from protesters after the Colectiv tragedy was for it to be made easier for new political parties to form. While there are some newcomers, they are not expected to dent the results for the main parties.
The electoral system is already loaded in favour of the main parties, especially the PSD, after the switch to a single ballot system for the local elections was approved. In a recent interview with bne IntelliNews, Laura Stefan, corruption expert at think tank Expert Forum, described the move as “spitting in the face of the demonstrators”.
Any new party hoping to break into mainstream Romanian politics would also face an almost impossible task given the current party financing system. Few Romanians are willing or able to pay membership subscriptions, so as Moraru points out, “the only money in political life is grey money or dirty money”. This makes it impossible for a truly clean new party to challenge the existing parties - or for the existing parties to clean up their acts.
Official salaries are also low - a mayor makes around €1,000 a month - and candidates are expected to be self-funding at least to some extent. “Self-funding is only possible through abusing the budget of the public offices they hold,” explains Moraru. “Unless we break this vicious circle there will be no new approach for Romanian politics.”