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"The Local Barrons" & Corruption outran PSD in the elections

Arthur SUCIU

The Social Democrat Party is set to lose the general elections this autumn, after the mediocre performance in the local elections. The results of these elections are not revealing enough to prove to what extent this performance was poor.In assessing the final result, one must take into account a series of variables. On election date, PSD was controlling most of the power levers, at a central and local scale. On election date, PSD was controlling most of the central and local mass media. On election date, PSD had available the highest funds for the electoral campaign.   This significant advantage should have lead to a significant lead in ballot options, which was not the case. This is why, more than the election results, it is the comparison between the PSD before June 6 and the PSD after June 6 which proves that this party has lost.

Paradigm shift


In the local elections in June 2004, PSD won about 3 million votes, one million less (i.e. one quarter) than in the general elections in November 2000. The incumbent ruling party won, as compared to the previous ballot, 620 communes more, yet it lost 10 towns, of which 6 county capitals. PSD lost Bucharest, Cluj and the Moldavia stronghold, without recovering any ground in Ardeal or Banat-. Unlike the situation before the elections, PSD's political and media quasi-monopoly has ceased to exist. The PNL - PD Alliance asserted itself as a political force at least equal to PSD, with the additional benefit of an image advantage, in the context of the coming general elections. Whereas, prior to June 6, the political interpretation paradigm was imposed by PSD, it is now competing, to say the least, with the Alliance's paradigm. Election results proved PSD's interpretation paradigm was rather euphoric, constantly overlooking relevant elements of the reality, and consequently offering an incomplete image of what was going on around us.

Something else than propaganda

Nobody - or close to nobody - did foresee these results, although there were enough signals that something might come up. The PSD propaganda stood strong, in spite of increasingly vehement attacks by the Opposition. The elections' result was a surprise: for PSD, for the Alliance, for the analysts. Probably, in all calculations regarding the elections, the electors' judgement capacity was insufficiently taken into account. In this respect, this was a nice surprise. Finally, here is an electorate who actually chooses, not particularly knowingly, but at least chooses something else than the propaganda tells them to.


A campaign of great achievements


The content of PSD messages sent by governmental and party sources and "correctly" interpreted by the pro-PSD mass media was built in such a manner that it failed to reach its target group. Such messages would praise the Năstase Government's achievements, in the context of local elections, in other words they were too general. The governmental achievements were not actually an electoral campaign theme. On the one hand, Romania's accession to NATO was no argument for the election of, let's say, the Mayor of Bacău; on the other hand, the D.A. Alliance did not attack the Government on grounds of its governance failures. It may sound strange, but the Alliance did not specifically target the failures of the current governance. "Itemised," "concrete" accomplishments, presented to voters at a local level, were little taken into account, either because they were not substantial enough, or because they were overshadowed by other facts, which the voters saw as very serious, and therefore more important. For these reasons, the comparison drawn by PSD between its achievements and the "disaster" of the former Democratic Convention - CDR - governance (the main ideological argument) was itself irrelevant. The voters did not see the Alliance as a new CDR, and very likely those who voted for PD and PNL took into account precisely the fact that they were an alliance. The comparison was not between PSD achievements - CDR disaster, but too much power for PSD - too little for PNL and PD.

The concept of State-party, which the Opposition used for describing PSD indeed has nothing to do with the political science. Strictly scientifically speaking, PSD was not a State-party. Nonetheless, the concept was successful, it worked as a stamp overlapping the PSD logo, because there was some truth in this concept. On the other hand, voters perceived the "State-party's" disregard of the powerless Opposition as a negative thing.

Corruption and arrogance

The central theme of the elections was imposed by the Alliance and this theme was: corruption. Corruption was attached, naturally, to representatives of the ruling party and it thus turned into a political theme. Corruption is the one that triggers the social polarisation (a word so dear to Ion Iliescu), that is: some, few of them, are very rich, and others, most of them, are very poor. The few and corrupted should not be looked for in other place than at Power, hence the conclusion that they can be found in PSD. They are, on the one hand, the "local barons" and on the other hand the central leaders of the party. These few and corrupted do not represent the people, they are, on the contrary, far from the people, hence the "arrogance" (the "pathos of distance"). And the most "arrogant" of them all is the very PSD chairman and Premier, Adrian Năstase. Unlike the theme of achievements, the corruption theme was welcome by the voters and turned into the central theme of elections. The example of Bacau is very relevant in this respect. Dumitru Sechelariu lost the elections although Bacău was, according to Viorel Hrebenciuc's statements, "the cleanest city in the country". Whatever Sechelariu had done, all the "achievements," had no importance compared to his "arrogance" - which made him name the municipal stadium after himself.


From beer and sausages to "governmental alms"


PSD's poor management of this topic is well known. For a long time, PSD had denied the existence of "local barons." They were an invention of the media. Measures taken against some of them - Mischie, Bebe Ivanovici, Vanghelie - were tardy and not convincing. Moreover, after the results in Bucharest, Vanghelie's return to PSD became probable, whereas after other results (in Vrancea or Constanța) a new concept was concocted, the "positive baron." PSD did nothing to build an adequate image for its leaders, so that these leaders appear very far from the spirit and values of social democracy. Social protection measures were turned into some sort of "governmental alms" in which instead of beer and sausages, the poor are given away computers (for pupils), milk and cookies or money for agriculture works. Such measures reveal the pure electoral intention as well as the "arrogance" which tries to buy votes not with private money, as Sechelariu did, but, a lot more serious, with public money. Instead of approaching the issue of corruption will all seriousness, including through remarks against the Opposition's "barons," PSD would rather stick to presenting its own "achievements."

"Settling the accounts"


Beyond the important and tale-telling losses of votes and mayor offices, PSD also lost, in political terms, the chance of becoming the only social-democrat party in the political arena. The failure is accounted for by an obvious conceptual misunderstanding, evident throughout the mandate, but in particular in the electoral campaign for the City Hall-. The Capital's City Hall had turned into the battlefield, the place for settling the accounts in the "social-democrat" side. In this battle, Mircea Geoană's role was to sanction Traian Băsescu's failure, the failure of the latter's anti-PSD politics and the full-fledged victory of PSD as the sole and lawful representative of social democracy in Romania. In consequence, Traian Băsescu would have lost his lawfulness and the helm of PD alike, the party would have dissolved and part of the members would have migrated to the liberals and the others to the social democrats.

This was the trend, yet the doubt persisted: what if Traian Băsescu wins the City Hall- again? We should keep in mind that PSD paid all the due importance to this office, although not aware of why they did it. Was Băsescu to be the small stroke able to fell the big PSD oak? If Geoană loses - which actually happened - this could mean that Năstase himself could lose the Presidential elections. Because Băsescu's success against Geoană is also Băsescu's success against Năstase. Which means PSD could actually lose the elections.


Băsescu reloaded


Just as in PSD's case, Traian Băsescu's success depended on the results of district elections, as well as on the results of other local elections. By election date, Băsescu's success seemed rather a surrealist scenario. The working hypothesis was another: PSD would counteract a prospective failure to Băsescu through a success in the local elections in other localities. In such a case, the only one to lose was Mircea Geoană. At the same time, it was very clear that PD's future was the merger with the National Liberal Party. Băsescu would win the battle with PSD, but his party wouldn't. PSD would become the sole Social Democrat Party and PNL, in the Opposition, would continue to lay emphasis on its social-liberal component, and to support Theodor Stolojan.

Which did not happen at all. Quite miraculously, Băsescu managed to make up for the lost ground, reaching as much as half of PSD's quota (16%, as opposed to PSD's 33%). Not only was PD not destroyed, but it came out of the elections a lot stronger, even compared to its alliance partner, PNL. From this viewpoint, the battle on the right-of-centre side is still being fought, and it is still premature to speak about the two poles - PSD and the Alliance - as long as we have two social-democrat parties.

Also worth mentioning is that Traian Băsescu fought this battle while allied with the Liberals. Băsescu's anti-PSD-ismwas backed by the Liberals because it exposes the corrupt PSD oligarchy and is not a mere support granted to a social-democrat party against another social-democrat party. Traian Băsescu indeed failed in all aspects, yet his constant position as an exposer of PSD leaders saved him from disaster and launched him in the political battle.


Misjudgement has its price


PSD leaders proved to have seriously misjudged the situation in the campaign in Bucharest. Beyond the excellent electoral performance of Traian Băsescu, what had a negative impact was the lack of commitment of the PSD candidates. Of the two conceptual versions possible, PSD chose a third - a dead-end. According to PSD's Bucharest branch leader, Dan Ioan Popescu, the first version had been to propose a District Mayor for the Mayor General office (either Darabont or Gherasim). This version, based on the concept of administrative team, would have been viable, yet it was given up once Băsescu announced he would run for a new term in office. In other words, neither of the two - Darabont or Gherasim - was seen as standing any chance of outrunning Băsescu.

The second alternative was to propose a first rate political leader, Mircea Geoană, able to put up a genuine fight with Traian Băsescu. And this is where the big conceptual mistakes came up. It was self evident that in the electoral battle Traian Băsescu would have as an opponent the PSD Government and governance, which he was accusing of corruption, and that Traian Băsescu was not interested in the debate with district mayors. Under these circumstances, Mircea Geoană should have proposed a fresh team, in order to eliminate any suspicion related to the corruption of old councillors or mayors. Secondly, if Băsescu was fighting against the Government, it would have been natural for the Government to fight back, in other words the Government, headed by Prime Minister Adrian Năstase, should have backed Mircea Geoană in the electoral campaign. If it had to be a political battle, it should have been fought all the way, and PSD Ministers should have put on their boots, just like Geoană, and get down in the market places. It did not happen, Geoană was sent to wage the war on himself, utterly unprepared and dragging after him an army of stained councillors. Leaving that aside, there was nothing in PSD's moves that could hint that a political battle had been undertaken. Although a credible leader, Mircea Geoană surprisingly enough would not attack Traian Băsescu, whom he made into an almost intangible character. District Mayors in their turn stood by the administrative campaign concept, which basically took them out of the battle and led to an inevitable failure.


Speeding up PSD's in-house reform


The result of local elections sheds new light on the current ruling party. First of all, it has become clear that this oversized party did not live up to its own "size." It is also becoming evident, these days - after having been occasionally grasped in the past - that at a central level there are various "sides" inside PSD, the interests of which are divergent. The failure in Bucharest, the conceptual misunderstanding proven in the electoral campaign, are consequences of these divergences. Secondly, it has become obvious that the relationship between the party's central structure and branches in the country are more often than not based on resentment as to the centre or on sheer indifference. Basically a break up has occurred between the local and central structures, as local branches act independently from the party policy and, more than once, contradicting it altogether. One can safely say, also, that PSD is an insufficiently structured party, in particular on its vertical dimension, and an insufficiently reformed one, in particular at the leaders' level. The PSD image has been supported by a powerful propaganda machine, and PSD's votes were to a great extent due to Ion Iliescu's substantial "contribution." These elections proved however that the effect of propaganda is minimum unless it is doubled by effects of the governance, and, also, that Ion Iliescu's electorate is shrinking. The result of these elections basically pushed for the in-house reform of PSD, for PSD's "re-branding", the redefining of its entire apparatus and of its leading and recruitment structures.

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