Kelemen Hunor

2014 in Romanian Politics: More Active Citizens Moving Past the Ethno-Nationalist Nostalgia?

A TURBULENT SPRING: THE 2014 EUROPEAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS

It has been a very busy political year in Romania. The EU Parliament elections in May 2014 seemed to confirm the strong position enjoyed by the alliance of social-democrats (Partidul Social Democrat, PSD), which polled 38% of the votes and received half of the seats allocated for Romania (16 MEPs). First, the PSD was followed at a significant distance by the liberals (Partidul Naţional Liberal, PNL), which polled 15% (6 MEPs) and conservatives (Partidul Democrat Liberal, PDL), which polled 12% (5 MEPs). The rest of the seats into the EU Parliament were distributed among an independent candidate (Mircea Diaconu), the party representing the interests of the Hungarian minority (Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România, UDMR/Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség, RMDSZ) (2 MEPs), and the newly formed conservative party (Partidul Mișcarea Populară, PMP) (2 MEPs). Second, the EU Parliament elections appear to indicate that the political influence of outgoing president Traian Băsescu, at the end of his second mandate, is long past its zenith. More clearly, the PMP, despite being endorsed and heavily supported by outgoing president Băsescu polled only a modest 6.21%. Third, reflecting the political competition to come in the fall for the presidential elections, in the aftermath of the EU Parliament elections, the PNL renounced its political affiliation to the European Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (ALDE) and joined the competing conservative Group of the European People’s Party (EPP), joining in several other Romanian political parties (namely, PDL, UDMR/RMDSZ, and the newly accepted PMP). Since, the PSD maintained its affiliation to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the consequence of these elections was that at EU level, the political landscape in Romania indicated a polarization between a social-democratic pole, crystallized around the PSD, and a rather centrifugal conservative-popular grouping, which was formed of the other political entities. However, in national politics the picture was complicated further by the Victor Ponta II cabinet, which since February 2014 reunited the PSD, several smaller parties, and the UDMR/RMDSZ.

THE FIRST ROUND OF PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS:

For the presidential elections in the fall (the first round scheduled for 2 November; respectively the run-offs for 16 November), 14 candidates succeeded to collect the necessary endorsement from at least 200 000 voters for their candidacy to be validated. Among these candidates, in the eve of the first round of Presidential elections, opinion polls suggested that acting PM Ponta (PSD) received approximately 40% of the voting intentions, followed by Klaus Iohannis, the mayor of Sibiu (in German, Hermannstadt) and candidate of the newly formed Liberal Christian Alliance (ACL) between the PNL and PDL, who collected some 30% of the voting intentions. Four other candidates managed to receive between 10% and 5% of the voting intentions, Monica Macovei (independent, former PDL member); Teodor Meleșcanu (independent, former director of Romanian foreign intelligent services); Călin Popescu Tăriceanu (independent, leader of a PNL breakaway grouping under the name Reformist Liberal Party), and last but not least Elena Udrea (PMP). Among the other eight candidates, none of which polled more than around 3% of the voting intentions, it is worth noting Hunor Kelemen (UDMR/RMDSZ) and two populist radical right politicians: Corneliu Vadim Tudor, leader of the nearly extinct Greater Romania Party (Partidul România Mare, PRM); Dan Diaconescu, leader of the newcomer People’s Party-Dan Diaconescu (Partidul Poporului-Dan Diaconescu, PP-DD).

The electoral campaign was marked by the emergence of several rather peculiar issues in a contemporary electoral context: appeals to religion and ethnic belonging, and to family status. Celebrating his birthday in September, an overly confident PM Ponta launched his candidacy in front of 70 000 supporters gathered on the National Arena in Bucharest, with the slogans “Proud to be Romanians” (“Mândri că suntem români”) and “Victor Ponta – the president that unites!” (“Victor Ponta – preşedintele care uneşte!”), in a ceremony abounding of references to the Romanian ethno-nationalist project and bringing religion in the political campaign. Illustrative of this, the head of Romanian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Daniel, awarded at the beginning of October one of the highest ecclesiastical distinctions to the chief of Ponta’s electoral campaign, Liviu Dragnea, apparently for his efforts to renovate churches in close collaboration with the Orthodox Church[1]. Indeed, Ponta chose to profile himself as part of the ethnic Romanian majority and a practicing Romanian Christian Orthodox. His statement was regarded to be a direct attack against the conservative-popular candidate, Iohannis (in German, Johannis) being part of the German ethnic minority in Romania and of Lutheran faith. Iohannis indicated coldly that Romania is a secular state and that he holds only Romanian citizenship[2]. Another personal attack against Iohannis was registered later on during the campaign, when the spokeswoman of Ponta’s presidential campaign Gabriela Firea commented on the suitability of Iohannis for the presidential function, arguing that being childless (like the Iohannis couple) is a sign incomplete family life, contrasting with Ponta being a “good family man”[3]. These were not however the only personal attacks in the campaign: outgoing president Băsescu involved rather openly in supporting the candidacy of Udrea (PMP) and accused PM Ponta of being an undercover agent for the Romanian foreign intelligence services (SIE), an accusation that did not have the negative impact it was intended.

Three other issues are worth noting concerning the first round of the 2014 presidential elections: a first one concerns the fact that two women politicians (Macovei and Udrea) competed with a serious chance to become the third best qualified candidates in the presidential contest. In a sense both are connected to the outgoing president Băsescu and the center-right conservative PDL. President Băsescu seems to have chosen Udrea, former minister of regional development and tourism (2008-2009; 2009-2012), to continue his political legacy. Băsescu forced a split in the PDL and entrusted the newly formed PMP to be Udrea’s political vehicle. In turn, Macovei has created over the years an anti-corruption political profile during her time at the helm of the ministry of justice (2004-2007) that she has later cemented during her mandate as MEP (2009-2014). The fact that they competed for the highest position in Romanian politics and not merely symbolically, despite the fact that Romanian politics are characterized by a masculinized and misogynistic political culture, indicates that we witness a slight shift towards a more gender equal perspective about women as capable politicians on the Romanian mainstream political stage. The second issue pertains to the peculiarity of Macovei’s candidacy and her political campaign that lacked the support of a wide party infrastructure across the country and consequently relied exclusively on the help of dedicated volunteers and had a very strong presence in social media (particularly Facebook and Twitter). Eventually, Macovei came in the fifth place polling 4.44% of the votes, close behind Udrea who polled 5.2% of the votes, despite the fact that Udrea benefited from the substantial support of the PMP’s territorial infrastructure across the country (see Table 1 for detailed electoral results).

The third one refers to the problematic organization of the polling stations for the Romanians voting from abroad (the so called “diaspora vote”, which was organized in its own electoral bureau, in addition to the 47 electoral bureaus arranged at national level). Quite early during first round of the presidential elections it became apparent that the number, size and placing of voting stations abroad has been seriously underestimated. Consequently, very long queues had formed outside these voting stations, oftentimes stretching over several hundreds of meters. Unfortunately, the voting stations were closed at 21:00 local time across the various locations, although not all citizens queuing for hours on a row had the possibility to cast their vote, particularly in cities with significant Romanian expat communities across Europe, such as Paris, Rome, Turin, Madrid, London, Munich, and Stuttgart. Indeed, the 48th electoral bureau declared only a total of 161 054 votes from the various polling stations across the world. Various social media (Facebook, Twitter) were quickly flooded with recordings of these queues and protest manifestations were organized over the days to follow in the principal urban centers (in Bucharest, Cluj-Napoca, Timişoara, etc.) across the country in support of the diaspora. The limited voting stations for the Romanian diaspora was considered by many to be a purposeful decision on behalf of the PSD-led government to prevent the diaspora to vote, particularly having in mind that in the 2009 presidential elections the social-democratic candidate was narrowly defeated because of the diaspora vote that supported the center-right conservative candidate.

THE PRESIDENTIAL RUN-OFFS

The first round of the presidential elections confirmed Ponta (40.44%) and respectively Iohannis (30.37%) as the two counter-candidates to continue in the run-offs. After intense negotiations, the two met in two televised debates that concluded with indecisive results. Preparing for the run-offs the two candidates adopted different electoral strategies. Ponta’s candidacy was officially endorsed by several previous presidential candidates, among which Popescu Tăriceanu, who was named by Ponta as the future prime minister should he win the presidency[4]. In addition, both populist radical right candidates, Diaconescu and Tudor, confirmed their support for Ponta’s candidacy encouraging their electorate to vote for him. The alliance with these radical political forces was described as a reenactment of the early 1990s Red Quadrilateral (patrulaterul roşu), a less dignifying period when the social-democrats allied themselves with the populist radical right to rule Romania[5]. In addition, the Romanian Orthodox Church was accused of getting involved in the elections in favor of Ponta, in return for the promise of substantial state financing[6]. In turn, Iohannis announced he would not search the endorsement of any of his previous counter-candidates in the presidential race, rather he appealed directly to the Romanian electorate to support his presidential bid[7]. Later on Macovei announced she endorses Iohannis’ candidacy[8], whilst Udrea and later on Kelemen chose not to endorse any of the candidates, leaving their supporters to opt for one or the other.

A contentious issue concerned the manner of addressing the challenges present in the 48th electoral bureau that collected the diaspora vote. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Titus Corlățean, presented his resignation at the pressure of citizens’ street protests and was replaced by former presidential candidate Meleșcanu, but despite strong criticism concerning the organizational shortcomings of the first round, and the repeated appeals of civil society and various political parties to open additional polling stations, the decision was to maintain the same number of polling stations abroad and instead increased the number of voting booths available at each polling station. However this measure was vehemently criticized for being insufficient and triggered a strong popular mobilization both abroad and in Romania, yet again with the help of social media, whereby Romanian citizens started queuing in front of the polling stations abroad even before these had opened, armed with toothbrushes and chanting to be allowed their democratic right to vote.

For the run-off on 16 November 2014, the electoral participation increased with approximately 10%, from a national average of 52.31% voting presence (with 51.64% in the cities and 53.21% in the rural areas) and 161 054 casting their vote in the 294 polling stations abroad in the first round, to a national average of 62.04% casting their vote (with 61.41% in the cities and 62.88% in the rural areas) and 378 811 voting in the 48th electoral bureau at the 294 polling stations abroad. However, not all Romanian citizens that queued for hours in a row outside the polling stations abroad managed to cast their vote, leading to several incidents and the intervention of local police forces that dispersed the people with tear gas in both Paris and Turin[9]. At the closing of the polling stations, the exit polls indicated a very close score, though it became apparent quite early during the night that the social-democratic candidate was losing ground. Later the same night PM Ponta conceded defeat to Iohannis who celebrated the victory praising Romanian citizens for being the heroes of the day for their “phenomenal vote”[10].

From the preliminary final data delivered by the Romanian Central Electoral Bureau (Biroul Electoral Central, BEC), Victor Ponta polled 45.49% of the votes (a total of 5 264 383 votes, compared to 3 836 093 votes received in the first round), whilst Klaus Iohannis polled 54.50% of the votes (a total of 6 288 769, compared to 2 881 406 votes in the first round). Some foreign media rushed to argue that Iohannis won because of the diaspora vote[11], in a manner similar to the victory registered by Băsescu in 2009 against his social-democratic counter-candidate. While it seems to be true that the vote in the diaspora has been overwhelmingly in favor of Iohannis (over 89%), the electoral battle was won in Romania: in several counties Iohannis polled over 65% of the votes (in Alba, Arad, Covasna, Cluj, Harghita, Mureş, Satu-Mare, Sibiu, and Timiş); and polled over 50% of the votes in counties generally considered to be social-democratic strongholds (in Constanţa, Iaşi, Tulcea, and Suceava).

In conclusion, it seems that the elections witnessed to citizens’ rejection of the old ethno-nationalist discourse and punishment of Ponta’s political arrogance and disconnection from the plight of the common citizens[12]. Another aspect worth noting is that, although Ponta was able to form his first cabinet in the aftermath of the 2012 citizens’ protests, the social-democrats did not pay sufficient attention to new forms of citizens’ mobilization with the help of social media (particularly Facebook and Twitter). At the same time there are several cautious voices that warn on the overly optimistic attitude connected to Iohannis as future president, noting that besides Meleșcanu’s resignation the PSD-led governing coalition does not appear inclined to assume responsibility for the problematic organization of the elections abroad or to give in to the increasingly louder appeals to Ponta to hand in his resignation. Despite the defeat of its candidate, these elections are an undeniable opportunity for the PSD, but also for the other parties across the political board, to address more seriously citizens’ concerns regarding corruption and a more transparent and accountable politics[13].

Table 1: The results of the 2014 Romanian presidential elections, ordered according to the results in the first round, with provisional final results for the run-offs[14]

Candidate Party/Alliance First round (%) Run-offs (%)
Victor Ponta PSD 40.44 45.49
Klaus Iohannis ACL (PNL + PDL) 30.37 54.50
Călin Popescu Tăriceanu Independent 5.36
Elena Udrea PMP 5.2
Monica Macovei Independent 4.44
Dan Diaconescu PP-DD 4.03
Corneliu Vadim Tudor PRM 3.68
Hunor Kelemen UDMR/RMDSZ 3.47
Teodor Meleșcanu Independent 1.09

Note: This blog entry has also been published, albeit in a slightly revised form, on Baltic Worlds section on Elections.

Footnotes:


[1] http://www.gandul.info/politica/vrednic-este-liviu-dragnea-a-primit-ordinul-sfintii-martiri-brancoveni-din-partea-patriarhului-daniel-13378790

[2] http://www.evz.ro/vezi-cum-comenteaza-iohannis-atacurile-legate-de-religia-sa.html

[3] http://www.gandul.info/stiri/gabriela-firea-atac-murdar-la-klaus-iohannis-a-fi-familist-inseamna-si-sa-ai-copii-cand-a-spus-ca-investeste-in-imobiliare-nu-in-copii-a-spus-din-greseala-ce-gandea-13372864

[4] http://www.cotidianul.ro/ponta-e-posibil-sa-i-propun-lui-tariceanu-postul-de-premier-250476/

[5] http://www.romanialibera.ro/politica/politica-alegeri-prezidentiale/noul-patrulater-ro%C5%9Eu—psd–unpr–pc–prm-356014?c=q2561

[6] http://www.gandul.info/stiri/alianta-bor-psd-operatiunea-bani-si-imobile-pentru-biserica-contra-voturi-pro-ponta-13532077

[7] http://www.revista22.ro/klaus-iohannis-e-un-lucru-care-trebuie-sa-ne-dea-de-gandit-daca-alianta-de-guvernare-reface-patrulaterul-rosu-victor-ponta-e-disperat-si-minte-49651.html

[8] http://www.romaniatv.net/alegeri-prezidentiale-2014-monica-macovei-il-sprijina-pe-klaus-iohannis-in-turul-ii-al-prezidentialelor_181857.html

[9] http://adevarul.ro/news/politica/eu-diaspora-n-a-vrut-voteze-1_5469c6790d133766a8f54b7f/index.html; http://www.digi24.ro/Stiri/Digi24/Special/COTROCENI+2014/VOT+DIASPORA+Cozi+infernale+si+gaze+lacrimogene; http://www.mondonews.ro/romanii-din-paris-si-torino-au-fost-dispersati-cu-gaze-lacrimogene-de-politisti/

[10] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/16/romania-klaus-iohannis-president

[11] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30076716

[12] http://adevarul.ro/news/politica/bunerangul-l-a-doborat-victor-ponta-1_5469f4be0d133766a8f6db34/index.html; http://adevarul.ro/news/politica/de-pierdut-psd-sindromul-benjamin-button-psd-ului-1_5469e26c0d133766a8f631ba/index.html; http://www.hotnews.ro/stiri-opinii-18589433-castigat-romania-prin-alegerea-lui-klaus-iohannis.htm

[13] http://adevarul.ro/locale/cluj-napoca/mesaj-dur-organizatorul-protestului-cluj-acl-nu-imbuibatilor-fanfaronilor-victoria-nu-e-voastra-1_546b43bc0d133766a800ffd4/index.html

[14] http://www.bec2014.ro/rezultate/

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Friday, November 21st, 2014 Research No Comments