Romania’s election – hard figures and a hard future

Written by on December 14, 2012 in Europe, News, Perspectives - No comments

Romania boasts the largest administrative building in the world, the Parliament Palace that is home to its bicameral parliament – fittingly, perhaps, it will now boast one of the largest legislative bodies in the world too. The general election on December 9 has produced a legislature that will have 588 MPs, thanks to a complex electoral system that combines majority voting with proportional representation.

And yet, this outcome may be preferable to the alternative of straightforward first-across-the-post elections, championed five years ago by President Traian Basescu and his Democrat-Liberal party. If it were in effect at this election, it would have produced a 90 per cent majority for the winner, the social-liberal alliance USL, instead of the already sizeable two-thirds majority it will have now.

Under the existing system, nominees that win an outright majority in their electoral college are guaranteed a seat, but additional seats have to be created to preserve the proportion of votes received by all parties and alliances that surpass the electoral threshold (five per cent for individual parties, rising for electoral alliances depending on the number of parties in them). Hence, the need to create 118 new seats, which went almost exclusively to two parties expected to form the bulk of the opposition in the new legislature.

Even so, the opposition from the Democrat-Liberals and the populist People’s Party, is expected to be largely toothless, as the USL will have a large enough majority to amend the country’s constitution without requiring the consent of other political parties – and that’s before taking into account the 18 MPs from ethnic minorities in the lower house, who traditionally avoid rocking the boat and vote with the ruling majority.

USL could also co-opt the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR), which will have a total of 27 MPs in the two houses after successfully fending off challenges from other parties that attempted to break its stranglehold on the ethnic Hungarian vote, to further boost its majority. The three parties that make up USL are far from agreement whether they should bring UDMR into government, with more talks on the issue scheduled for December 17.

Since USL’s inception in 2010, it has maintained unwavering unity both in opposition and in government, showing little sign of fraying. The main reason is that despite their very different ideological backgrounds – the Social-Democrats of prime minister Victor Ponta have the support of centre-right National-Liberals and Conservatives – their dislike of Basescu has overridden all possible internal dissent.

Chickens coming home to roost
Basescu has no one else but himself to blame for the situation he finds himself in – his abrasive discourse won him support early on when it was seen as outspoken and direct, only to morph into irritating and downright offensive as his first term came to an end in 2009 (Basescu won re-election by the slimmest of margins, coming almost entirely from the voters abroad, which he carried by a landslide).

Since then, the austerity measures pushed by his party after Romania’s overheated economy crashed hard with the onset of the global financial crisis have further dented his popularity – at the recall referendum this summer, which failed only because the 50 per cent threshold was not met as Basescu asked his supporters to boycott the vote, more than 86 per cent of respondents were in favour of impeaching Basescu for overstepping his constitutional powers.

Politics can make for strange bedfellows, but neither of Romania’s two other major parties (the Social-Democrats and National-Liberals) will entertain the thought of an alliance with Basescu because both have been there and have been burned badly by the fallout.

The National-Liberals formed an alliance with Basescu and his Democratic Party in 2004; after that year’s election produced a hung parliament, the alliance (in coalition with two other parties) formed the government because Basescu won the presidential election against the Social-Democrat prime minister at the time, Adrian Nastase, and insisted he would not nominate a Social-Democrat as prime minister.

But relations broke down in 2007 as Basescu insisted on snap elections that liberal prime minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu opposed, resulting in the sacking of all of Democratic ministers and Tariceanu forging ahead with a minority government.

Despite his success inciting dissent in the liberal party – and taking in a large break-away faction, prompting the change in his party’s name to Democrat-Liberals – Basescu’s allies failed to win the 2008 general election, prompting a “grand alliance” with the Social-Democrats, desperate to get back in government after a four-year stint in opposition. It lasted barely a year, and after its demise, Basescu finally got a compliant cabinet he so badly craved (thanks to a splinter Social-Democrat group that ensured Basescu’s party had the parliamentary majority).

Unfortunately for Basescu, his wish came true at the worst possible time, with the economic boom over and the cabinet forced to implement austerity measures asked for by international lenders – measures that voters came to identify with Basescu, further undermining his approval ratings.

Going forward
Romania’s bailout agreement expires in March, but the country will need an extension, likely to come with more strings attached – it is one of the rare issues on which Basescu and his political opponents agree (as does long-serving and generally-respected central bank governor, Mugur Isarescu).

Basescu has never been one to play the long game and it appears unlikely that he would serve the two remaining years of his presidential term waiting for USL to self-destruct, giving him an opportunity to mount a comeback as the victorious white knight. Having turned 61 last month, he might not have the time either, although he does have the example of Ion Iliescu, Romania’s first post-communist president, who remains honorary chairperson of the Social-Democrats and still has a lot of pull in the party at the age of 82.

Before the election, Basescu said that having to nominate Ponta as the next prime minister would be akin to “having to swallow a pig”. Given USL’s decisive win in the election, he could try to find another nominee, but his odds of success are limited as USL remains united in its insistence that it would not support anyone other than Ponta in a confirmation vote.

Crucially, should he effectively initiate the latest round of hostilities in the “institutional civil war” with parliament, he would not have the same level of EU support as in summer, when he was seen as the victim of a power grab by USL. At that time, his efforts to portray himself as a defender of state institutions and the rule of law found resonance in Brussels and European capitals – a repeat performance seems unlikely.

It hardly helps his case that in a parliament where about 60 per cent of MPs will be serving their first terms, many of the returning ones have run afoul of the law in the past, including in his party. As one local observer commented in the immediate aftermath of the election, at least his opponents are less hypocritical and have not claimed to be squeaky clean.

The checkered past of so many Romanian MPs will undoubtedly be a concern for Europe going forward – the EU has no plans to abolish its ongoing monitoring of Romania’s judiciary reform and fight against corruption; appointments to key positions in the judiciary will likely be closely scrutinised, with Romania’s entry to the Schengen visa-free travel area at stake.

But neither will the EU challenge the outcome of free elections (that fact was not challenged, unlike Basescu’s re-election) – it is more likely to exercise its “soft power”, including the prospect of withholding structural funds, to bend the new government’s policies in the desired direction, rather than unconditionally throw its lot in with Basescu against the voters’ wishes.

And USL, for that matter, despite having the necessary votes to change the constitution to drastically curtail the president’s powers, may yet choose not to do so – after all, it was Basescu’s scarecrow that brought about its decisive win. Keeping him around until the end of his term in 2014 may yet serve a purpose in shifting attention away from its own unpopular decisions it may face in the coming months and years.

(Photo of Romania’s Parliament Palace by George M. Groutas/flickr.com)

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About the Author

Alex Bivol is the news editor of The Sofia Globe.