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Guess who will conquer the City Hall?


Local elections next month are not just a mere "warming up" for parties and political actors in view of the parliamentary and presidential elections, as it was considered in the last 14 years. In May and June, all the parties engaged in the electoral race will throw in the arena their best assets: candidates, strategies, programmes and logistics. The favourite seems to the Social Democrat Party (PSD), now in power, but the gap between it and it's main counter candidates, the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Democrat Party (PD), together known as the "democratic opposition" (to be distinguished from the biggest opposition party, the extremist "Romania Mare"), is visibly reducing. Contrary to declarations and hopes of PSD leaders who predict a certain victory in local elections next month, the electoral roulette is unpredictable for the moment.

Fortifications in the country side

In the 2000 local elections, the current governing party - at that time called the Social Democracy Party of Romania (PDSR) - didn't manage to obtain more than about 28% of votes for regional or city counsellors, despite the fact that they were coming from the Opposition and thus had the privilege of an uneroded position. Moreover, the ex-PDSR, now PSD, didn't manage to win the seats of mayor in the big cities including the one of the Capital, currently held by Traian Basescu, the most powerful rival of the governing party leadership. The big and reliable reservoir for the social-democrats of Ion Iliescu and Adrian Nastase was the rural population and the people from the poor and peripheral areas of big cities.
Preoccupied with the problems of coalition politics and with internal scandals that characterized the centre-right government between 1997-2000, the respective parties lost local elections and their predictable defeat placed them all behind the winner PDSR. Nevertheless, the latter's triumph was not very comfortable in 2000 local elections: the Romanian Capital and the capitals of the most important regions were again missed. Better educated, more demanding and informed, the citizens of the big cities continued to reject those who created in Romania the most primitive political species, the "local baron" and who transformed corruption into a natural phenomenon.
Local elections in 2004 represent the big chance for re-establishing a political equilibrium so vital for the normalization of the Romanian society and political system tormented by corruption and the lack of the rule of law.
All prepared for start, the political parties will begin the race from unequal positions, a consequence of the privileged PSD presence in the media (the advertising contracts are to be blamed...). But the reality is more nuanced. The population's expectations are very high, proportional with the current problems: very low living standards, unemployment, inflation, insecurity, all generated by the generalized corruption. The electoral offers, now in the eve of the campaign, were quite poor, the parties preferring instead a guerrilla war among themselves.
Manoeuvring a huge machine, the government funds and all the state leverage at their disposal, the PSD leaders, both in the Capital and at local levels, use medieval methods to conquer the electorate: popular parties in parks and square markets for the poor people or literally buying votes with cash - one vote for about 50.000 lei i.e. 1.5$ - as it happened in the partial local elections in 2001 and 2002.
Suffocated by the pressure of state institutions and incapable, most of the time, to react promptly to governing party's abuses, the PSD's counter candidates, the liberals and the democrats, needed years to realise that only by acting together they can change the balance of power. Only in October 2003, when the PNL-PD Alliance was created, the political scene seemed to normalize. The polls started to fluctuate. PSD remained the first in top, thanks to the paternalistic image of President Iliescu and to the transformation of many Romanians in slaves of the social aid system.
On the other hand, the Greater Romania Party (PRM) of Corneliu Vadim Tudor, irrevocably lost the second place, being surpassed by the Alliance. UDMR, the party of ethnic Hungarians is striving after 14 years of existence to keep united and to pass the electoral threshold, at 5% starting from this year. Lagging behind is the optimistic Romanian Humanist Party, helped by one of the most powerful Romanian media corporations and benefiting from the advice of the famous American king-maker Dick Morris.
PNȚCD, the main party in the coalition that gained the general elections in 1996 is struggling in tragic quasi-anonymity, with  very low chances to get over the 5% threshold. It is even surpassed in polls the Popular Action, a party created by the former president Emil Constantinescu, for his own pride.

The Heroes

The great battle for the local elections is waged between PSD and the PNL-PD Alliance. The main battlefield is the Capital, where, paradoxically, the dice seems to have been cast. The current mayor, Traian Basescu, president of PD and co-president of the Alliance beside the liberal Theodor Stolojan, seems invincible. The observation was not made only by journalists and analysts but also by the campaign director of PSD, Viorel Hrebenciuc and, ironically, even by the PSD candidate for Bucharest. Benefiting from the most powerful electoral force of the moment - Traian Basescu, the liberals and the democrats have all the chances to win the sits in the six sectors of the Capital, currently held by PSD. Nominated fifty-fifty by PD and PNL, the Alliance's candidates are parliamentarians and public administration experts who are expected to show respect for the respective constituencies. On the other hand, PSD decided to go ahead with the incumbent sector mayors, much criticized for corruption.
The third opposition party, PRM, adopted the Alliance's formula and nominated several incumbent parliamentarians for the local elections. PUR, the microscopic party, with a low profile but having great ambitions, transformed the electoral race into a Women's Club. In order to gain visibility, the party nominated relatively well known women from Bucharest's high-life - media, business etc. PUR is not necessarily interested in winning seats in the Capital but rather to get prepared for the parliamentary elections.
Despite different scandals orchestrated by PSD leaders, Traian Basescu seems to enjoy good public support. This was even more striking in the current dispute around the future National Salvation Cathedral, the mayor being opposed to its construction in one of Bucharest's parks. Despite the very authoritative voice of the Romanian Orthodox Church who supported the plan, the debate became a national one and people seem to give credit to Traian Basescu's position.

Strategies and strategists

The repeated disregard to laws and democratic principles, the widespread institutionalized corruption and abusive manoeuvring by PSD party members, created unexpected situations in most of the counties: the common front of the other parties to win the top seats in the local administration. If initially these alliances didn't seem credible, they were materialized in concrete anti-PSD structures. 
The stake of the local elections made the party leaders to hire specialized political consultants, in the same time famous and expensive. PSD made a preliminary deal with the American-Israeli consultancy Greenberg-Carville-Schrum, seconded by several specialized Romanian firms. PRM concluded a contract with Arad Communications, an Israeli company, and PUR made a deal with the American strategist Dick Morris. The three parties will pay millions of dollars to these foreigners who try to make them sexier for the Romanian electorate.
The Alliance was satisfied with rather modest deals, using Romanian firms for the local campaign. Creating stress for PSD, the journalists wanted to find the sources of the funds used for the local campaign which seems very expensive. It appears that there are two main sources: the public money, PSD not being shy in using them for party purposes, and the party contributions coming from traditional party clients or from businessmen paying a kind of protection-tax to the local barons and to the state officials.
PRM carefully saved money for the electoral battle in 2004, the last year when it can still be really taken into account on the political scene. Inevitably, Vadim Tudor's party becomes increasingly obsolete, its hopes being only to repeat its success in 2000, based on huge popular frustrations generated by widespread poverty.

Propaganda and public relations

The Alliance's representatives are not masters of electoral campaigning, but their strategy, apparently simple, seems to prepare unpleasant surprises for the governing party. The Alliance leaders want to conquer the big cities, the regional and county capitals. Cluj, the capital of Transylvania looks set for the young democrat Emil Boc who will probably run in the final against the incumbent Gheorghe Funar of PRM. Furthermore, the liberals and the democrats nominated current parliamentarians as candidates even in the smaller cities. PSD used the same tactic but people like Ioan Rus in Cluj or Victor Ponta in Chitila will surely retire after the polls in the comfortable Government premises, without scruples.
After fighting several months with anonymity in the media, the Aliance's leaders are challenging PSD's confidence of winning the local elections. Accusations that PSD members are prepared for massive fraud at the elections and the examples in this sense coming from the experience with the last referendum went beyond the national borders, alerting even EU officials. If PSD leaders initially treated with arrogant disregard these accusations, they gradually realised that the citizens and the EU officials are looking seriously at the signals coming from the liberals and democrats in the opposition.
The situation became more serious in the last months when the European Parliament severely criticised the PSD Government, pointing out that through its policies, Romania fails to meet the political criterion, a fundamental one for the accession to the EU. The European Commissioner for Enlargement, Gunter Verheugen recommended to the Nastase Cabinet to catch the "big fish" in the fight against corruption and the raporteur for Romania, Emma Nicholson came to Bucharest to translate for the current Government the perception of Romania in the EU: "Corruption, corruption, corruption."
In these conditions, instead of correcting its actions, prime-minister Adrian Nastase and the PSD leadership launched menaces to opposition leaders: "We will sue you if you continue to accuse us to prepare frauds in the coming elections!" Of course, the lawyers will be hired by the Government, with public money, as Adrian Nastase himself admitted.

A small revolution...

The battle for the local elections could have unexpected results. If it's obvious that PSD will continue to dominate the rural areas and the Alliance will win in the Capital and the big cities, we shouldn't forget that after the 2000 elections, PSD hijacked about 80% of the opposition mayors. Now, as they plan to win ‚only' 40% of the city halls, it looks like the coming local elections will result in a change of more than half of the incumbent mayors. A small revolution that could take place silently. It remains to be seen if the habits will change accordingly, in a mandate that will go beyond the 1st of January 2007.  (Translated by Anton Comãnescu)

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Institutul de Proiecte pentru Inovatie si Dezvoltare The National Centre for Sustainable Development