February 2005

Romania through international eyes
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Looking back on Election 2004
Romania's Orange Revolution

by Paul Wood
February 2005

The Orange Revolution swept to power in Romania before the Ukraine. To the surprise of most, Traian Basescu, the so-called centre-right candidate for the Romanian presidency (in fact the Democratic Party he led is a former communist party of the centre-left) not only won more votes than his former PSD rival, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, but was proclaimed the winner after a reasonably transparent count.

In Ukraine at the same time the ruling former communist party blatantly fixed the election only to be forced into a rerun under intense international scrutiny after weeks of mass protests and sit-ins. The similarities should not be pressed too far. Romania is not Ukraine and there is no evidence that in Romania critics of the government have met untimely deaths, even if a number of journalists have been badly beaten up. It was an unfortunate coincidence for Mr Nastase that in both countries the opposition candidates' colours were orange (while the ruling party campaigned with blue) and that the elections were held in close proximity. The scenes shown on Romanian television from Kiev acted as a reminder if only subliminally of the Romanian Revolution and in a very tight battle shifted votes to Basescu.

Basescu astutely took advantage of the situation by denouncing to the foreign press the extensive vote rigging in the first round of the elections. His announcement came after the OECD seemed to say within hours of the count that the vote had been reasonably fair and the European Commission had breathlessly promised that nothing in the conduct of the election would cause problems for Romania’s accession to the EU. Whether or not they would have done so anyway, certainly London and other capitals brought pressure on Bucharest to do things better in the second round and not to steal the close result. No one will ever be quite sure how things would have unfolded had the Ukrainian elections been held a month later.

Almost everyone among what is known here as intellectuals (roughly meaning university graduates), at least in the towns and cities, is delighted by the famous victory. Despite all the sweet blandishments at its command during four years and despite buying opinion-formers in the media by the score, the PSD, the direct successors to the communist party, failed to gain any notable support among clever open-minded people or in the nascent middle class. On the day it proved that despite the control of television radio and most newspapers, despite the support of the priests, despite the appeal to the fears of the horribly impoverished peasants and the workers, despite what voters thought were clear signs of support for Nastase from Brussels, despite Basescu's liberal views on homosexuals and prostitution and despite Mihaela Radulescu, the party still could not quite win.

Why did the PSD lose when until the local elections last summer they expected to be in power for a decade? Romania was following the pattern throughout Central and Eastern Europe since 1989 whereby each government loses office in each country at each election. What is surprising is that Romania was expected to buck the trend.

Undoubtedly had the Constitution allowed Ion Iliescu to stand for president for a hird full term he would have done so and would have won. Nastase, a smooth, arrogant lawyer, had none of Iliescu’s warmth or bond with the rural poor and the working classes. In the one televised debate between Nastase and Basescu the latter won hands down. The transcripts of the PSD meetings which showed the ruling party manipulating the media and interfering in the judicial process to damage political opponents and favour party colleagues, would have led in a more mature democracy to the instant fall of the government. Widespread disgust at egregious and unabashed corruption played a major part in the result as did the idealism that the Basescu campaign mobilised among its supporters, a stark contrast to the notable lack of discernable idealism in the opposing camp.

Nastase probably made a mistake in debating head to head with Basescu although it would have been difficult to avoid doing so. A less understandable error was to ally before the second round with the Hungarian party and thereby alienate the twice as numerous supporters of nationalist Corneliu Vadim Tudor. Their votes gave Basescu his victory in the presidential run-off.

Another error was allowing controversial television magnate Dan Voiculescu’s tiny Humanist Party to win 30 seats on the Social Democrats' coat tails for fear of losing the support of Antena 1 during the campaign. The Hungarians and the Humanists are now coalition partners in the Democratic-National Liberal led government. Ironically Vadim claims the Hungarians only entered Parliament because of PSD-orchestrated vote rigging; this claim might have more substance than most of Vadim's flamboyant assertions. Ironies - as always in Romania - abound.

One of my few PSD friends is the selfless, hard-working and wholly admirable administrator of the block in which I live, who combines devout belief in the Social Democratic party with belief in Marxism and the Orthodox Church. Even he abstained in the second round and admits to being very pleased that Basescu won. 'He is authoritarian,' my neighbour pronounced and when I asked whether that was a good thing I was firmly told that an authoritarian was needed to fight corruption. My friend understands Romania much better than I do and may very well be right.

There was a quite extraordinary sense of tangible joy in Bucharest the day following the announcement of the final result. I went to the theatre that night and at the curtain-call the star of the show made a brief reference to the day marking a new beginning for the country. He was cheered by the audience to the echo. Perhaps fancifully, I thought I understood a little bit how the revolutionaries of 1848 might have felt.

Two months later, this atmosphere of euphoria still exists. Many people have no doubt that the new government will do as many bad things as the last, but many of those very people are excited and optimistic despite themselves. I am frightened to hear the terms of uncritical admiration in which I hear normally cynical Romanians describe Mr Basescu. I have even noticed that orange coats for ladies are suddenly selling. I foresee an enormous sense of disappointment when he turns out to make lots of mistakes.

Some of his most attractive qualities, his spontaneity, outspokenness and lack of dignity will quickly sour with Romanians who expect the head of state to be a quasi-regal figure. Ceausescu and his presidential sceptre were mocked and hated but the 'Head of State' as the media continually refer to the president has the difficult task of personifying the national pride of a nation that suffers from a pathological inferiority complex. One commentator described the choice between the two main presidential candidates as between 'the ironic professor and the giggling waiter.' The jovial maitre d’ was chosen but the time may come when even such trivial considerations as Basescu’s unruly hair and lack of dress sense will tell against him. After all, of all Mr Vacaroiu’s grave deficiencies as prime minister in the 1990s perhaps none did him more harm with the electorate than that when meeting his foreign counterparts he was apt to show a gap of flesh between his sock and trouser leg.

On the other hand, Romanians respect a government that takes instant far-reaching decisions - as this one has done already on the flat tax - without consultation or stopping much to think. Therein lie shades of Mr Basescu’s demolition of the kiosks from the centre of Bucharest which robbed thousands of their livelihoods overnight. This is the smack of firm government that is (unfortunately) appreciated after 50 years of dictatorship. And after the endless squabbling of the Constantinescu years and the venality of the last four, perhaps this is understandable.

Traian Basescu is as far as can be imagined from a moralist and political innocent like Vaclav Havel. His shoot-from-the-lip style disguises a very astute as well as pugnacious politician. The way in which he dismantled Dan Voiculescu showed Basescu has both nerves of steel and the mind of a chess player. He has a Churchillian joy in combat which is infectious and he has the potential to capture a personal following as faithful as Ion Iliescu’s. Basescu’s ambition will be to do what Iliescu failed to do and win two successive terms as president. That is unless he prefers at the end of his first term to move from Cotroceni to Victoria Palace and take up office as prime minister.

He has convinced even people who did not vote for him that he might be the providential man whom Romanians hope will deliver them from their travails. If he turns out merely to be a hypocrite he will not be forgiven, but if he fulfils some of the high hopes invested in him he has the chance to precipitate the disintegration of the PSD, a left-wing party led by multi-millionaires whose supporters are literally dying away, and stamp his authority and personality on an era just as his predecessor Iliescu has done – but this time, one must hope, with happier results.

Paul Wood is the principal behind Apple Search and Selection, an executive search firm.

Vivid Election 2004 archive

November 2004

October 2004