BUCHAREST BLOG: Bucharest mayor takes a big political gamble

BUCHAREST BLOG: Bucharest mayor takes a big political gamble
By bne IntelliNews September 20, 2018

Gabriela Firea, a former journalist who is now mayor of the Romanian capital Bucharest, is taking on Liviu Dragnea, arguably the country’s most powerful politician, in a battle for the future of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD).

In recent weeks Firea has led a growing chorus of criticism of Dragnea as senior party members fear that the PSD’s drop in popularity as reflected in recent polls will lead to a battering from voters in the next general election unless drastic changes are made. 

Dragnea’s role has been controversial ever since the PSD returned to power alongside its junior coalition partner the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (Alde) in December 2016. Unable to take up the prime minister post thanks to his conviction in a voter manipulation case (no one with a criminal conviction is allow to hold high office in Romania), he has pulled the strings from behind the scenes of the three PSD-led governments since then; the first two prime ministers — Sorin Grindeanu and Mihai Tudose — were both forced out after they tried to assert their independence. 

The frequent changes of government and confusion as to who is in charge have led to multiple policy reversals that have dismayed investors. Meanwhile, successive governments’ policy agendas have been focussed on undermining the anticorruption fight and overhauling the judicial system — moves seen as tailored to helping Dragnea evade justice. The PSD leader has since received a second conviction in an abuse of office case, and is awaiting his appeal; should the sentence be upheld he faces three and a half years in prison. 

These actions have led to condemnation from Romania’s international partners and mass protests at home. The pressure is now mounting even from some quarters within the PSD for Dragnea to step down. Firea has been at the centre of the public dispute between Dragnea and a group of influential party members who object to his leadership. 

Tensions between the two politicians erupted in September amid a dispute over the handling of violent clashes between protesters and the gendarmerie at an antigovernment protest in Bucharest on August 10. Firea claimed that Interior Minister Carmen Dan, a close ally of Dragnea’s, was trying to pass the responsibility for the violence on to the Bucharest prefect, one of Firea’s allies.

At a party meeting on September 1, Firea called for Dan to step down, admitting to journalists afterwards that her relationship with Dragnea is “tense”. Three days later, the Bucharest mayor openly called for Dragnea himself to step down, and continued her attacks on the party leader in the following days. “At a political level there was a desire for the whole negative image to be assumed by the mayor of the capital,” Firea told a press conference on September 5. She also claimed to be the target of a defamation campaign organised by Dragnea.

As the dispute escalated, Firea and Deputy Prime Minister Paul Stanescu were among the party members that put their signatures to an open letter calling on Dragnea to resign. In the letter, dated September 19, they accuse Dragnea of jeopardising the party’s chances in the next parliamentary elections by involving it in multiple conflicts with the presidency, the intelligence services, the prosecutors’ office and the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). They appeal to Dragnea to step down, and for Prime Minister Viorica Dancila to act as interim head of the PSD until the party congress next year.

The outcome of the unfolding power struggle should be known soon; Dragnea is due to meet with regional party chiefs on September 21 in a bid to resolve the issue once and for all. The embattled party leader has reportedly said he will step down if branch leaders ask him to. 

Rags to riches 

Now a household name in Romania and one of the country’s most influential politicians, Firea is a relative newcomer to politics, having made the switch from journalism just six years ago. 

She rose to power from unlikely beginnings, growing up as one of four children in a desperately poor family in the northwestern city of Bacau. In media interviews she has talked of her father, a violent drunk, and how her classmates mocked her for turning up to school with old shoes and clothes and no lunch. "But all this … made me the person I am now. Because frustrations and feeling humiliated depress me in the short term, but motivate me in the long term," Firea told Romanian glossy magazine Tango

Firea started out as a journalist in her hometown Bacau, later moving to the capital. Despite a stint as PR adviser to former prime minister (now central bank governor) Mugur Isarescu in 1999, most of her working life has been in the media. She switched from print to television, working for several outlets in media tycoon Dan Voiculescu’s empire.

As her profile rose, her private life became the subject of intense scrutiny. Her first husband, former athlete Razvan Firea, died of a stroke in 2010. Less than a year later she married the influential mayor of Bucharest’s Voluntari district, Florentin Pandele, amid much criticism.  

After the birth of her second son in 2012, she turned from the media to politics, joining the PSD and winning a seat in the senate in November the same year. She became a spokesperson for Romania’s then prime minister Victor Ponta in his unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2014. 

Firea won the Bucharest mayor election with support from 42.9% of voters, in an election that saw the PSD sweep the board in the capital’s electoral districts. She benefitted from changes to the rules that scrapped the second round of voting, giving the PSD an advantage over parties representing the more fragmented centre right that traditionally does well in the capital. The landslide PSD victory in Bucharest was further helped by the failure of the main centre-right parties to agree on a single candidate.

Popularity contest 

The open letter penned by Firea and other PSD dissidents refers to the party’s falling popularity; it is currently polling at between 25% and 30%, well down from the 47% of the vote it took in the 2016 general election. They also point to Dragnea’s personal ratings of just 7% to 12%. 

By contrast, recent polls have shown Firea is consistently one of the most popular public figures in the country. A Sociopol poll quoted by Mediafax news agency in July showed that Firea was seen as the most trustworthy person in Romania by 25% of respondents, second only to Raed Arafat, the head of the Emergency Situation Department (50%), and ahead of both President Klaus Iohannis (24%) and Dragnea (15%). Firea is also the most popular PSD leader according to polls, and her ratings have remained high even as the party’s internal turmoil has caused its popularity to fall. 

Despite her poll ratings, however, Firea is by no means universally liked. In Bucharest, she has managed to woo many voters with free holiday vouchers for students and pensioners, vouchers for bikes and financial aid for mothers, as well as organising festivals, street fairs and other free events for the capital’s residents.

However, since taking the mayor position, she has been harshly criticised by her opponents for her poor management of the Romanian capital, in areas such as infrastructure and traffic management. And her populist strategies don’t appeal to the more sophisticated segment of the Bucharest electorate. 

This was vividly illustrated when Firea gave the keys to the city to tennis champion Simona Halep at a ceremony in Bucharest’s central stadium, and was promptly booed by the crowd. Footage from the event shows a visibly uncomfortable Halep standing by as the mayor’s speech was drowned out by deafening boos — that could be heard some way outside the stadium. Further controversy followed when the PSD used the incident in a promotional video, implying that Halep had been the target of the boos. Firea’s many critics have now taken their fight online, trying to flood her Facebook page with negative comments faster than her team can block them. 

The question now is whether Firea’s good showing in the polls and high profile will allow her to prevail against Dragnea along with other disaffected members of the PSD. Other attempts have been unsuccessful as dissident voices have found themselves swiftly isolated and in some cases expelled from the party. Grindeanu and Tudose were both on the losing side of power struggles. Ponta, Dragnea’s predecessor as PSD leader, is now a vocal critic — from outside the party. 

Firea is in a somewhat different position; not only is she riding high in the polls, she has also been directly elected mayor by Bucharest citizens and the PSD leadership cannot remover her from the post. But even with this advantage, she faces a formidable opponent.