Alegerile prezidenţiale 2009
Romanian Presidential Elections of 2009
Race for the Prize of „Răul cel mai mic”
Traian Băsescu defied the East European
convention and narrowly won a second presidential
term despite the formidable array of opponents
confronting him. There were still numerous undecided
voters despite his steady decline in the polls over
the last year and he reconnected with a lot of them
in a skillfully-fought campaign. But it was his
opponents who decided the contest through their
complacency and the elementary mistakes of a
second-round candidate who was simply no match for
Băsescu. He proved to be the least of the evils on
offer and the drama of the second round produced a
surprisingly high turnout contrary to the
predictions of analysts who assumed that voters had
grown steadily more depoliticized. He then went on
to obtain his second mandate from voters who were
encouraged to make their selection on aesthetic
grounds far more than programmatic or ideological
Keywords: parliamentary elections, Romania,
In the parliamentary elections of November 2008 only 39.26% of the electorate bothered to vote. One year later, the likelihood that the presidential elections would evoke greater interest appeared slim. The challengers lacked broad support and they confronted an incumbent President who had disillusioned many former supporters and galvanized a formidable set of enemies. Traian Băsescu’s loss of ground appeared to condemn him to defeat since he had first been elected in December 2004 with only 51.23% of the vote, against 48.77% for his Social Democratic Party (Partidul Social Democrat, PSD) challenger Adrian Năstase.
Băsescu had interpreted his presidential role as being that of a ‘player’ rather than an arbiter of different forces and interests within the political elite.1 He expressed a commitment to modernising the state and reducing the privileges of the political elite. He wished to make the members of a party-based democracy, which had seen little turnover in personnel, more accountable to the justice system and public opinion. He had given his support to the investigations into high- level corruption pursued by the National Anticorruption Directorate (Directoratul National Anticoruptie, DNA), which had been founded after strong representations from the European Union in 2007. He had used his presidential powers to ensure that on 22 November, voters would be able to decide in a referendum whether to replace the bi-cameral parliament with a unicameral one and also reduce the size of any new parliament.
Băsescu claimed that his role as an activist president was designed to make the political system more efficient and accountable to citizens. But a growing number of opponents argued that his reformist rhetoric was insincere and that he was intent on neutralising key opponents in order to maximise his own personal power, or at least that of the Party of Democratic Liberals (Partidul Democrat-Liberal, PD-L). These opponents had grown so numerous that, for nearly all of the campaign, Băsescu’s bid for re-election appeared to be a doomed mission. He had succeeded in uniting a phalanx of politicians with opposing viewpoints against him as well as business leaders with clashing interests, no less than 80% of the media, and increasing numbers of intellectuals.
It was rare for a president to win re-election in post-communist Europe, especially in the midst of an economic crisis.2 The ‘Alianta Anti’ which had taken shape possessed important advantages. Mircea Geoana, the leader of the PSD, whose candidacy had been declared since the previous spring, was able to rely on his party’s formidable voting machine. There was no apparent shortage of campaigning funds: the PSD, although nominally a left-wing party, was dominated by wealthy businessmen. Wealth had grown to be unusually concentrated in Romania especially when considering it had been one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet until 1989. By the end of 2007, the top 300 wealthiest men in the country controlled the equivalent of 27% of gross domestic product (PIB).3 Their wealth had grown by 50% in the course of a single year, 2007-08, which was the height of the period of economic growth that the country had known since 2003. As the country then slid into recession, they managed, with more success than medium-sized businessmen, to conserve their fortunes. For Dinu Patriciu, reputedly the country’s richest individual, Băsescu was a capricious figure and in a bid to reduce his influence, the energy magnate and media entrepreneur, did not conceal the fact that since 2004 he had financially backed both the PSD and the National Liberal Party (Partidul National Liberal, PNL), where he enjoyed great influence.4
Rather than attack the President, Patriciu’s press titles openly sought to steer their readers away from political concerns, their advertising openly proclaiming that politics would not be a priority issue in the election campaign. But the Antena media trust, controlled by Dan Voiculescu, a long-term foe of the president, openly campaigned against him. Realitatea, the main 24 hours news channel, was owned by the controversial financier Sorin Ovidiu Vintu; it had only fully turned against Băsescu by the end of 2008, but the negative treatment of the president and his campaign would be uninhibited, especially in the second round of elections. The state television, TVR1, failed to make up for the hostility of much of the private electronic media and was widely seen as copying the approach of Antena in its political coverage. In none of these channels could the president’s statements expect to be carried, except where there were editorial grounds for doing so, and his supporters, even when they were eminent intellectuals, rarely or ever appeared in contrast to lesser-known cultural figures whose ‘Basescofobia’ earned them useful exposure.5
So Băsescu was the underdog and indeed he behaved like the challenger coming from the outside. His foes, though technically in opposition, sometimes acted as if they were de facto rulers, controlling much of the media and large swathes of the economy. Only the voting machinery was beyond their control which could have been different if the PSD had not been expelled by the PD-L from their governmental coalition in September 2009. The crisis blew up when Dan Nica, the interior minister, threatened to take stern action against any example of PD-L voting fraud. It was a premature shot in the electoral war which enabled the PD-L to escape from a government with its most dangerous foe. (Băsescu and many in the PD-L recognised that this decision had probably been mistake within six months of the coalition government having been formed in December 2009).
The PD-L was the better-generalled of the electoral formations. It obviously benefitted from being the sole party in government in the period immediately preceding the elections. But its crucial advantage was the ability to benefit from the complacency and elementary mistakes of its rivals, above all the PSD during the second round of campaigning. Beforehand, there had been no shortage of commentators who expected Băsescu would prove his own worst enemy on the campaign trail. But he hardly put a foot wrong and performed like a candidate hungry for victory rather than an incumbent weighed down by years of strife with former allies and longer-term opponents.
The campaign about Băsescu was so all-encompassing that in Sibiu even inveterate rivals, the PRM and UDMR joined forces in a local campaign to unseat Băsescu. This city obtained plenty of coverage because it was the political base of Klaus Johannis, a popular mayor who had acquired useful international contacts in 2007 when Sibiu had been the European City of Culture. Johannis’s FDGR had run the city since 2000 when he had first been elected mayor. Since then, he had been characterised in the press as a rare municipal reformer in a country where local politics tended to be dominated by greedy barons and their army of clients. Johannis had not been tested in central politics, but his image was so favourable that the PNL and PSD decided in the autumn of 2009 to nominate him as their Prime Minister if they succeeded in defeating Băsescu.
The ability of two parties normally associated with the murk and deception of Dambovitean politics to persuade a well-regarded Transylvanian to cross over to their side appeared to be another big nail in Băsescu’s coffin. The president appeared a diminished figure as the campaign against him escalated in the autumn of 2009. He was characterised as a would-be dictator who had isolated Romania on the international scene, and had been a destructive presence at home. Had he not buried the PNT-CD and then sought to submerge the PNL?6
It sometimes appeared that the main television channels were trying to disconnect their viewers from the country’s own authoritarian past in order to depict Băsescu as a dictator. On 22 November, Zoe Petre, a long-term adversary, even compared him with Stalin.7 Ironically, playing a key role in this „politics of amnesia and post-historical vision” was the administrator of Realitatea’s news programmes Emil Hurzeanu, who had inspired opponents of Ceausescu by his broadcasts on Radio Free Europe before 1989.8 The well-known novelist Mircea Cartarescu commented about the media’s overall role: „nowhere else in the world has a tyrant been depicted as one in the majority of newspapers published in his own country.”9
Băsescu was also faulted for his earthy public image. Much propaganda was directed at young and educated people, saying that he was uncouth and vulgar and therefore disqualified from being Head of State. In the words of Mircea Dinescu: „I feel the need for the President of Romania to be a gentleman.”10 Figures from the world of advertising had been recruited to argue that style and aesthetics mattered when these Romanians were making their choice, since they were not greatly concerned with political issues and had too short a historical memory to be able to evaluate the records of the PSD and PNL when they had been more influential.
The fury of media efforts to turn voters against one of the candidates meant that there were times when the activities of the media eclipsed the role of the candidates whom they supported, Geoana and the PNL’s Crin Antonescu. There is little doubt that the media brought a lot of voters to the PSD and PNL, especially young vaguely reformist ones, who desired consensus and a focus on long-term challenges from whoever was President. But the tactic of shaping the campaign around Băsescu’s fitness to rule proved a double-edged sword. It recognised the role that personality played in a country whose politics lacked a strong programmatic basis. But without a rival personality of equivalent presence, it created the danger of back-firing.
In 2004, newspapers like Cotidianul and Ziua had been key backers of Băsescu during his first presidential candidacy. The ownership of the first had changed subsequently, as had the political orientation of the second. A similar realignment had occurred within civil society, or more accurately those high-profile bodies often shaped around a well-known personality whose mission statement emphasised reform of various elements of democratic life. In the past, they had fought off attempts by the PSD to create a state-dependent civil society lacking any real independence. In 2009 civic bodies previously suspicious of the PSD performed useful services for it during the campaign, even after it became apparent that an unreformed PSD was likely to inherit power from Băsescu. Pro Democratia and Transparency International were the best-known non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which accused Băsescu of ‘electoral fraud’ by using his presidential powers to ensure that a referendum on parliamentary reform coincided with the first presidential round. The curious term ‘pre-fraud’ was used.11 But the matter was viewed differently even by the majority of voters opposing Băsescu: the vote in favour of a unicameral parliament reduced in size was more than double that which Băsescu received in the first round.
Prominent figures associated with 1989, Mircea Dinescu, Doina Cornea and the former Radio Free Europe broadcaster Emil Hurezeanu, played a prominent role in the drive to expel Băsescu from Cotroceni. The wealth of Hurezeanu and Dinescu and their links with different pillars of the oligarchy may explain the strategic choices that they made in 2009 far more accurately than what they were doing in 1989 or before. (Hurezeanu is now among the 500th wealthiest individuals in Romania).12
They were counterposed by Ion Caramitru, who quit the leadership of the wing of the PNTCD led by Gheorghe Ciuhandu and Radu Sarbu over its decision to make an electoral pact with the PSD. He warned on 3 December 2009 that „Those who lead the PSD are former nomenklaturists or the children of nomenklaturistsilor,or esle Securists along with all those who have done the greatest harm to Romania and now get ready to eat up PNTCD.”13
The behaviour of numerous civic figures suggests that the NGOs are increasingly putting aside their purist image and adopting the pragmatism of the political parties with which often they had previously been seen as in conflict with. If politicians migrate from one party to another, why shouldn’t some of the chief advocates of civic engagement also exercise this prerogative from time to time. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi of the Romanian Academic Society wrote in 2008: „many senior intellectuals ...migrated from one oligarch to another in the same way as politicians.”14 NGOs face even greater financial pressures than parties, so it is perhaps possible to argue that the practice of defection ‘traseism’ is more excusable in their case.
In the first round of voting, Băsescu was narrowly ahead of Geoana, having obtained 32.44% to his main challenger’s 31.15%. Informal soundings indicate that he lost ground among the young, especially those with a good education who used the social media. Antonescu’s strong third place (20.02%) may well be due to strong backing from this wing of the electorate. Friends who worked in law offices and hospitals mentioned that only a minority of young people there saw any merit in Băsescu. His more numerous opponents made their choice on aesthetic grounds as much as anything else, even Băsescu’s ‘ugliness’ being invoked against him.15 The PD-L tried to recover ground by fighting a sometimes witty campaign using You Tube to good effect.
Băsescu also appears to have lost a segment of the middle-class who, at a time of mounting economic insecurity feared that a conflictual figure running the country could damage them materially. They were receptive to the idea that Băsescu had become ‘raul cel mare’ and that it was therefore permissible to vote for Geoana ‘raul cel mic’ despite his dependence on PSD hardliners like Viorel Hrebenciuc and Marian Vanghelie. But the result showed the limitations of ‘the Johannis effect’. In his fiefdom of Sibiu, Băsescu got one of his best results (44%). For a good part of the campaign, Johannis was vague about his economic program and he did not refer to any of the essential reforms requested by the IMF in order to unfreeze the third tranche of the 2009 loan.16 Antonescu was perhaps a stronger asset than Johannis. He beat Geoana into third place in Buchurest and the great bulk of his supporters went on to support the PSD candidate in the deciding round. Facing a desperate struggle, Băsescu could perhaps obtain some consolation from the fact that his support was very evenly distributed among all age categories.17
The international dimension would ultimately produce a remarkable upset, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat for Băsescu. But beforehand everything appeared to be going the way of ‘the Alianta Anti’ in the external arena. Geoana had sought to exploit well-placed contacts that he had made as ambassador to the United States and then as Foreign Minister among lobbyists, left-leaning think-tanks, and US Democratic Party figures. He sent Cozmin Gusa to Washington, where he was colourfully described by the US-based analyst Dragos Paul Aligicica as „acest Austin Powers-International Man of Mystery, Varianta pan-Orthodoxa”; Gusa was received in the White House by Vice-President Biden’s advisers.18 The Western style of Klaus Johannis, the coalition’s prime minister designate, also helped to overturn doubts about the post-communist PSD: the only serious coverage in the New York Times of the elections was a profile of Johannis. The ‘Johannis project’ also threw much of the German media into the Geoana camp.19
Băsescu and the PD-L appealed for unity of the political Right but the PNL National Executive Council unanimously decided to back Geona in round two. It was widely assumed that in places where there had been a tradition of fierce rivalry with the PSD, Liberal mayors would not campaign vigorously for Geoana. Nevertheless, all the signs were that the PNL possessed the key to victory. Antonescu had fought a vigorous campaign; and the pro-Liberal Johannis looked set to propel large numbers of younger voters into the PSD camp.
In the second round, far more of the spotlight was on Geoana, who did not bother to try and supplant the image that he had been brought up in one of the elite families of Bucharest to expect that one day there was a good chance that he would step into the job of President of Romania. But he proved to be a wooden and aloof figure, unable to combine his professional strengths with a wide popular appeal. He was open about his role as the candidate of the interlocking political and economic interests groups that were disputing power with Băsescu. He declared that: „I don’t think I should conceal the fact that I have known Patriciu for around thirty years.”20 Such candour indicates that links between a PNL shorn of ideological Liberals during the premiership of Calin Popescu-Tariceanu and the PSD extended back to tights circles that were in existence before 1989 and took advantage of the free climate afterwards to establish a powerful hold on business and politics.
According to the polling institute of the Cluj-based politologist Vasile Dancu, Geoana led Băsescu by a clear 7% on 26 November. But by 4 December, they were exactly level.21 Three disastrous mis-steps had occurred during the last ten days of the campaign. A 19 second video-clip allegedly showing Băsescu hitting a child while campaigning in 2004 was released by Dinu Patriciu’s media group. This was done in the middle of the second round campaign. The authenticity of the image was widely questioned not just by the President’s team. Băsescu later admitted that if only his adversaries had waited and released the image in the final days of the campaign, it could have proven fatal for him as there would simply have been no time to muster proof against the allegations. Dincu’s company carried out a poll in which 40% of respondents declared that the images were false, while 32% believed them to be true.22 One effect was to close the ranks of the PD-L electorate behind Băsescu’s candidacy.
The second miscalculation was the visit of Geoana, Antonescu and Johannis to Timisoara on 1 December, disguising an electoral appearance as a gesture of national reconciliation. They wanted to exploit the symbolic value of Timisoara in order to convey the idea of a great national anti-Băsescu concord.23 But, if they hoped to turn the stunt into a mini-version of the Alba Iulia unification event held in 1918 also on 1 December, events did not go according to plan. They were booed by a large crowd who were later emulated by protesters in Bucharest, Brasov, Timisoara and Cluj in solidarity rallies of varying sizes. The Alianta Anti claimed that the manifestations had been organized by the PD-L, as did much of the media. Doina Cornea, the former communist-era dissident, even claimed that the public rallies reminded her of the mineriade of the early 1990s.24 But this was an isolated view and the unsubtle attempt to make capital out of the 1989-90 Timisoara events only succeeded in mobilising hard-core anti-communists who until then had been numb to Băsescu’s message.
Perhaps most damaging was Geoana’s midnight visit to the home of Vintu, on the eve of his electoral confrontation with Băsescu on 3 December. Earlier in the day, he had described Vintu as ‘malefic’ despite the key role his media trust was playing to ensure Băsescu’s defeat.25 If he had wished, by this remark, to display his independence from oligarchic forces, the gesture backfired. During the television debate in front of front of millions of viewers, Băsescu asked him if he had visited the controversial businessman whom he had earlier criticised for his unethical stance. Geoana had no alternative but to concede that he had. The damage was compounded since on 3 December the arrest of Nicolae Popa, formerly a key business aide of Vintu, had been announced. He had been a fugitive from the law since 2004 when he had fled to Indonesia. Investigations into Popa’s role into the collapse of the National Investment Fund (Fondul National de Investitii, FNI), which catapulted Vintu to fame in the late 1990s, resulted in a 15-year prison sentence.26 Tens of thousands of citizens had suffered heavy financial losses and the collapse played a major role in enabling the PSD to sweep back to victory in the 2000 elections. But in 2009 it looked as if the revival of the FNI controversy would produce a different set of casualties. Geoana admitted, soon after the deciding run-off, that his visit to Vintu had been a mistake.27 It certainly made it easier for Băsescu to depict himself as the champion of the little man prepared to defy privileged forces who might conspire in private to override the decision of millions of voters.
Concerning the ‘Vizita de „relaxare” acasa la Sorin Ovidiu Vintu’ on the night of 2 December, 46% of voters surveyed claimed that they have a bad impression of the visit.28 To capitalise on these breakthroughs, Băsescu’s campaign team made good use of Internet, SMS-uri, Twitter and Facebook. Without these media tools, it would probably have been impossible to counter-attack even when good opportunities were presented.29 His opponents were probably premature in using their key weapon, the image of Băsescu supposedly hitting a child. Dincu argued that the Geoana camp forgot an elementary rule set out by Sun Tzu over 2,000 years ago: „Show yourselves powerful when you are weak and weak when you are powerful.”30
In a long drawn-out election night, victory was declared by the ‘Alianta Anti’ with Geoana acknowledging the salutes of his supporters as the new president. But in its calculations, the PSD had discounted the votes of the diaspora. Only around 15,000 of the estimated 3 million Romanians living abroad had voted in the 2009 European elections. But nearly ten times that number voted on 6 December, the equivalent of a medium-sized judet.31
Băsescu’s opponents had overlooked the diaspora vote and had concentrated instead on courting elite voices abroad. They compounded their error by complaining that votes from the diaspora „should not have the same weight” as the votes from Romania because Romanians abroad had lost touch with local realities (a comment made by Adrian Năstase that he later withdrew).32 It perhaps strengthened the view of some within the PNL and PSD that Iliescu’s decision to make the Presidency a popularly elected position had been one of the rare mistakes committed by the chief strategist of the post-1989 political system.
During the night of 6-7 December, PD-L leader Adrian Videanu stepped out hourly to announce to waiting journalists that results from the parallel count made by the PD-L indicated a slender but firm lead for Băsescu. The credibility of this claim obtained a boost when Realitatea reporter Corinna Dragotescu, who had leftist sympathies, visited the PD-L headquarters and declared on air her satisfaction with the veracity of these findings. Băsescu declared himself the winner on 7 December. But the PSD reacted to its tantalisingly narrow defeat by claiming there had been electoral fraud. With the full consent of the PNL, the PSD asked the Constitutional Court to invalidate the election. Doubts were cast over the 130,000 blank votes, but when they were counted Băsescu’s narrow lead widened.
Fraud was likely to have occurred on both sides. Mircea Marin of Evenimentul Zilei suspected that the PD-L’s desire to appoint general secretaries in the ministries, prefects and sub-prefects after the collapse of the coalition with the PSD, sprang from the desire to manage the electoral process to their own advantage.33 Rumours of heads of student residencies being given inducements to bring students to vote were particularly rife. Johannis quickly retreated to Sibiu, declaring that Băsescu had indeed won. But nearly two weeks after the deciding round Ludovic Orban was publicly insisting that Băsescu had been chosen through fraud.34
Perhaps the desire to inflict punishment on a particular candidate was a primary motivation for millions of voters. Băsescu was the chief victim of this vengeful mood until the final days of the campaign, when the outlook of a small but pivotal group of voters changed. The ‘Alianta Anti’ was well-named. It had no original program for government and it is debatable how long it could have been united around a Johannis premiership. But it was able to capitalise on the negative image Băsescu had acquired through the lack of accomplishments of his time in office and, more especially, the hostility of media channels watched by millions stretching back several years. But in the end the biters became the bitten. Sliding towards a seemingly inexorable defeat, Băsescu was able to mount a series of surprise attacks on Geoana, who lacked the skills to repulse them. The post-communists of the PSD had cleverly mimicked many aspects of the democratic process, but their chief standard-bearer in 2009 was unable to simulate electoral passion or conviction. His campaign had been lulled into a sense of false complacency, Geoana made a series of elementary errors in the last week of the campaign which cost him dear. He had assumed that his support was more solid than it proved to be in reality. He was thrown onto the defensive by an insensitive attempt to exploit the Timisoara image, by appearing to dance the tune of a media mogul whom he had denounced only hours before, and by an inept performance in the television duel with Băsescu. In the end, Geoana’s negatives proved larger than Băsescu’s and that proved crucial.
Băsescu had attracted allies who were essentially no different in their standards than some of his most outspoken adversaries. But he revived the image of the outsider which had been so advantageous for him in 2004 and it made all the difference between victory and defeat. It proved appealing to voters who were alienated from the entire political class into which Băsescu had been placed after 2004 by disillusioned supporters. He has stated that his objective continues to be that of making a chronically-under-performing state work more effectively and not just in the interests of the privileged few. But it remains to be seen if, like Mao Tse-tung, he is using the language of the forum to disguise the politics of the palace.
Certainly this was the impression given when news broke of the composition of the post-electoral government on 22 December 2009. Dan Tapalaga, a tenacious opponent of oligarchic politics feared that „Emil Boc has sacrificed all expectations of reform, cynically rewarding instead a political clientele.”35
Time will show whether the bruising and often dramatic electoral contest of 2009 had merely been a political struggle between organized factions whose vision of how to conduct politics in Romania do not fundamentally differ. One thing is already clear. It had been an example of asymmetrical warfare transposed to the political arena. The weaker side prevailed, albeit narrowly, through a highly professional use of electoral weaponry. Romania has parties whose electoral skills are as good as those to be found in much more mature democracies. It remains to be seen if, in what remains of the Băsescu era, such capabilities will be displayed in the area of governance.
Tom Gallagher and Viorel Andrievici, „Romania: political irresponsibility without constitutional safeguards,” in Robert Elgie (coord.), Semi-Presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe
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Professor, University of Bradford, United Kingdom.