Toward a clearer political landscape in Romania?

By bne IntelliNews December 3, 2012

Andrew MacDowall in Belgrade -

Some 23 years after the ouster and execution of demagogic dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's political landscape is still scarred by the legacy of Communism as the country prepares for December's general election.

At first glance, the political landscape looks fairly straightforward: two major political groupings facing each other down, with a number of smaller forces also at play. But this masks a rather more complicated picture. The fissiparous nature of Romanian politics means that while the ruling coalition is expected to sweep the board at the election, it's not entirely possible to say what will happen next.

Some argue that such is Romania's current predicament and reliance on international support that the result will not make a huge difference either way; others caution that some permutations could see the rise to power of factions opposed to Romania's pro-European direction.

The triumph of pessimism

The three leading forces going into the December 9 election all inspire pessimism in their own way: one tainted by the past and recent power-grabbing; one unpopular and blamed for maladministration; and one a populist movement run by a tycoon of the sort often described as "colourful". Each, in their own way, is a vehicle for the ambitions of its leading figures as much as a coherent grouping offering policies of the left, right or centre.

The ruling Social Liberal Union (USL) damaged Romania's international reputation this summer as it launched what some - including many of the country's EU partners - saw as an extraordinary attack on the constitution. Romania received widespread criticism for the government's moves to curtail the powers of independent bodies including the Constitutional Court and parliamentary ombudsman, as well as a failed attempt to impeach the president.

The coalition is linked with the communist past through its leading member, the Social Democratic Party, which is also tainted by authoritarianism and corruption during its periods in power during Romania's painful transition. The Social Democratic prime minister, Victor Ponta, is a protégé of Adrian Nastase, a former PM currently cooling his heels in prison after being found guilty of corruption.

While the Social Democrats lead the USL, the importance of the other two leading parties in the coalition and their leaders, should not be discounted: wannabe-president Crin Antonescu of the National Liberal Party and media tycoon Dan Vioculescu of the Conservative Party are powerful influences behind the current government. Both are seen as being sceptical of EU influence over the country.

The opposition Democratic Liberal Party, for its part, has become little more than the personal political movement of President Traian Basescu. The Democratic Liberals were in government until May when a parliamentary revolt toppled Basescu's allies and ushered in the current USL coalition and Ponta to power. Basescu's now opposition Democratic Liberals face a serious pounding at the polls.

Ponta's Social Democrats have attempted to impeach the president twice via referenda. Basescu won the first in 2007, but the most recent vote in July saw 88.7% vote in favour of turfing the president out - but a turnout of less than 50% meant the vote was void.

Basescu has become deeply unpopular by his association with the swingeing austerity measures imposed in recent years, including a 25% cut in public sector salaries and tax hikes, as well as an abrupt and bullying style of government. Basescu's decision to sack the popular and successful health official Raed Arafat in January catalysed street protests against the president and the resignation of the Democratic Liberal prime minister of the time, a close Basescu ally.

Basescu has paid the price for his hands-on style of government, which has seen him take an active role in the administration of the country; he can be accused of having ruled through pliant prime ministers when the Democratic Liberal Party and its predecessors were in power. Now Romania's mid-2000s boom has turned to bust, the old bruiser Basescu is carrying the can.

While the ruling USL and Basescu's Democratic Liberals are the two main political blocs (though, it is more complicated than that), there is a wildcard third force in the shape of Dan Diaconescu, a TV presenter-turned-media-mogul. His modestly named People's Party-Dan Diaconescu appears to be making inroads with its populist but economically questionable rhetoric. The photogenic Diaconescu did his profile no harm earlier this year with a bid for struggling state chemicals firm Oltchim, including an appearance on the steps of the finance ministry with €3m in cash to pay workers' back wages. Sadly, the deal fell through as he couldn't raise the rest of the cash to buy the company.

lay of the land

Working backwards, the People's Party has been polling at around 15%, enough to get into parliament and respectable for a new party. Tom Gallagher, a British academic and Romania expert, tells bne that the party's support is concentrated in the south of the country.

Basescu's Democratic Liberal Party, meanwhile, tends to get much of its support from Transylvania, which for cultural and economic reasons has leant towards the West. A poll published on November 8 had the party's electoral coalition (which it totally dominates) running at 24%. However, it is possible that the weakly-led Democratic Liberal Party will fall below 20% when the votes are counted, Dan Tapalaga, a Romanian journalist and blogger, tells bne. Wipeout in June's local elections removed much of the party's "political infrastructure" on the ground, he explains.

The ruling USL looks a near-certainty to win - it has been polling above 50% for much of the year, and is less dependent on regional support than its rivals. As Gallagher notes, the PM's Social Democratic Party in particular has "a formidable vote-gathering machine and will likely capitalise on the continuing resentment many lower-income voters still feel about the biting austerity measures imposed by the Democratic Liberal Party government in 2010-2011."

While few doubt a USL win, the exact result, and its calibration between the parties within the coalition, could lead to some very different outcomes. If the USL fails to secure an absolute majority - and an early November poll suggested its support was slipping a little - then President Basescu will have the right to appoint a new PM. Given his bitter clashes with the USL, he may be tempted to choose a Democratic Liberal figure and attempt to build a multi-party government around him.

According to Tapalaga, Basescu may try to drive a wedge between Ponta, and Antonescu and Voiculescu. The latter two are implacably opposed to the president, whereas the PM had been making conciliatory moves towards Basescu before the election campaign formally kicked off. Gallagher agrees that a link-up between moderates from Ponta's Social Democrats and the remainder of the Basescu's Democratic Liberals "cannot be ruled out". This could allow Ponta to remain as PM while ridding himself of the baleful influence of his "allies."

Such a grand coalition is not the only possible outcome: Tapalaga says that there are a baffling range of permutations, including coalitions involving the People's Party or the UDMR, a highly-organised party representing Romania's large Hungarian minority that reliably gets 6-7% of the vote and has acted as kingmaker in the past.

Gallagher and Tapalaga disagree somewhat on the repercussions of the USL winning and staying united. Gallagher says Romania's Euro-Atlantic partners are becoming reconciled to Victor Ponta remaining the central political figure after the December elections. "He has been willing to heed advice on some, though not all, issues of governance and economic management which are of concern to Romania's major partners," Gallagher says. "The extent of Romania's economic difficulties means that he cannot easily turn a deaf ear to EU and US concerns about corruption and attempted manipulation of the justice system."

He adds that hardliners around Antonescu wishing to align Romania more closely with Russia lack "a coherent alternative plan."

Tapalaga, however, has real concerns that an absolute majority for the USL would allow it to ride roughshod over the constitution and ignore Brussels, instead following the whims of its powerful backers. "Romania is playing with its EU future," he says.

In economic terms at least, Gallagher's more sanguine view about the extent of international leverage over Romania may hold true. A Bucharest-based analyst at an international bank, who asked not to be named, tells bne that economic policy differences between the two parties are minimal - Basescu's Democratic Liberal Party has proposed a slightly looser fiscal programme. He pointed out that a new deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will be a priority for the next government, whichever party leads it, and that this will come with conditions. Growth forecasts for 2013 that have been slashed to as low as 0.5% don't provide much wiggle room.

Economically, as well as politically, Romania has serious difficulties, many dating back into the Communist era. But the fluid political environment still offers some hope that the country can get the leadership it badly needs. "The party system is still a work in progress," says Gallagher. "Unofficial trans-party networks composed of politicians whose primary goal is to survive and prosper at the state's expense remain easy to detect. But in all of the parties there are a minority of politicians who seem willing to do the necessary hard work which may at last enable Romania to start to benefit from EU membership."

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