Romania's presidential race is neck and neck as crisis deepens

By bne IntelliNews November 12, 2009

Graham Stack in Bucharest -

As the world celebrated 20 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, memories of Romania's bloody 1989 revolution served in Bucharest as an excuse for a bout of electioneering mud-slinging rather than sober reflection. But this just points to yet another neck-and-neck presidential race: no Romanian president has yet won reelection for a successive term, and this time could be no exception.

The first round of the election will take place November 22. Incumbent President Traian Basescu, a centre-right candidate backed by the Liberal Democratic Party (PDL), traveled to Berlin to take part in the festivities, accompanied by a 20-year-old student whose mother was killed by state security forces during Romania's violent overthrow of the Nicolae Ceausescu regime six weeks after the fall of the Wall in 1989.

For all the celebrations, it is often overlooked that the consolidation of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe paradoxically owes a lot to the successor parties of the former national communist parties. In most countries, 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 Social Democratic Party (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.

So when Basescu reminded people in Berlin that Romanian leaders immediately following Ceausescu's execution - meaning none other than Iliescu - had used violence against protestors they defamed as terrorists, resulting in loss of life of around 1,600, everyone understood this to be simply an electioneering dig, rather than a call for a real investigation of what happened 20 years ago. Iliescu simply responded as good as he got, calling Basescu a profiteer of the old regime and of the new one, someone who had not even participated in the revolution, whereas Iliescu claimed to have taken both risks and responsibility.

And underlying how the PSD has, at least superficially, changed into a social democratic party, its presidential candidate this time round, 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.

This has the PSD presidential candidate this time round suddenly looking more modern and European than Basescu. And attempts to use the memory of the bloodshed 20 years ago, in what most argue was a counter-revolution rather than the type of revolution that happened elsewhere in the region, won't cut any ice with Romanian voters. "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," Catalin Augustin Stoica, pollster and director of the Centre of Urban and Regional Sociology (CURS) tells bne. "I personally do not think that the topic will play a major role in this campaign."

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."

Neck and neck

Before the current economic crisis broke over Romania, President Basescu was looking a dead cert to win reelection, possibly even in the first round with over 50% of the votes. But with the crisis set to reduce Romania's GDP by a whopping 8% this year, and Geoana a plausible anti-crisis candidate, the opposition is fast making gains. Now a second round of voting looks certain for December 6, with Basescu and Geoana going through ahead of Crin Antonescu of the National Liberal Party (PNL). Opinion polls for the first round put Basescu at 30-35%, Geoana at 25-30% and Antonescu at 20-25%.

What happens then is anyone's guess. Polls show the second round to be neck and neck, with Basescu and Geoana both hovering around 50%. "Answers to poll questions about the second round should be taken with a grain of salt," says Stoica. "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 expect that the campaign for the second round will be very tough, with tonnes of innuendo, false accusations, rumours, personal attacks."

Among the complicating factors is that the media are generally believed to have a bias against Basescu as a result of historic ties between some of Romania's TV moguls, such as Adrian Sarbu and Dan Voiculescu, and the PSD. On the other hand, according to Dan Sultanescu of, Basescu's image has always been that of the lone outsider taking on the powers that be, so media opposition could also work to his advantage.

Moreover, Basescu has incorporated a referendum on abolition of the upper house of parliament and a reduction of lower house MPs into the first round of voting November 22. The parliament is the institution Romanians trust least, suspecting it not without cause to be a pit of sleaze and pork-barreling, and the move against it is popular, supported by 75% of voters. The referendum is not binding, but it will highlight again Basescu's image as fighter against deep-rooted corruption and cronyism, compared to Geoana who is chairman of the upper house. "The referendum on a unicameral parliament could affect the elections by favouring Basescu," believes Pop. "Basesecu is in favor of a presidential republic; Geoana and Antonescu prefer a parliamentary republic."

The combination of a close-run race and mutual smearing means that Romania's electoral system could be in for its toughest time yet. "The Romanian electoral system is pretty fair, but a more or less disputed election can't be ruled out," says Pop.

Stoica agrees. "I do not think that the Romanian electoral system is strong enough to avoid controversy... PNL and PSD have already started accusing PDL of attempting to 'steal' the elections. One can only imagine what would happen after the first round."

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