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Theme manipulation

Ana-Maria TĂNASE

The file declassification topic fits Traian Băsescu like a glove. Opinion leaders and political analysts were just noticing an inclination towards balance and wisdom that the President was ever more often taking up when he had problems to handle.

Some of the President’s imagology scaffolding was being eaten into, with the increasingly evident failure of the battle against corruption or at least the increasingly obvious decrease in media interest in such cases.

Traian Băsescu had not been voted for his charisma only; intellectuals in particular saw him as the most resolute opponent of “the rotten system,” i.e. of corruption.

But the corruption topic, which had given rise to such an evident cleavage in our society that it triggered a political change, was fading out. For a while its place remained empty, with (failed) attempts at filling it with the conflict between Traian Băsescu and Călin Popescu Tăriceanu or between the Liberals and the Democrats.

The lustration bill failed to catch the media and public’s attention, simply because the communism – anti-communism distinction rather involved the battle between PSD and the Alliance; by no means could it work to fuel tensions between the Liberals and the Democrats or between Traian Băsescu and Călin Popescu Tăriceanu.

After all, while Traian Băsescu had been backed by most of the anti-communist dissidence (e.g. Mircea Dinescu, Rodica Culcer, Gabriel Liiceanu, Octavian Paler), he won most of his votes by stimulating authoritarian-type justice-seeking attitudes.


How are themes manipulated?


Opinion polls have always indicated that respondents’ main concern was with their living standards, jobs, healthcare and the future of their children. Throughout 2004, media attempted to build another cleavage, necessary in order to stimulate a negative and justice-seeking vote. While in 2000 the symbol of the evil was CDR, although corruption scandals had been a lot more serious than in 2000-2004, in the electoral year 2004 a label was necessary, to further simplify political values and place them into dichotomic categories, thus polarising electoral options. For this to happen, a powerful societal cleavage had to be created, with whose help parties to be placed on either side of the political arena. In 2002-2004, the image of local barons gained an ever more definite shape, erupting every now and then in corruption scandals. The theme, more or less imposed from outside, took the form of references to corruption and the corrupt, reaching a climax with the establishment of PNA and of probes into corruption cases (a notable one involving adviser Fănel Păvălache).

Traian Băsescu won primarily due to the paradigm of the one who fights to eradicate corruption and the rotten system, a model similar to the one used by Vadim Tudor in 2000, when he threatened to shoot Hungarians on stadiums. This time it was the “stakes” in Victoriei Square waiting for the corrupt.

Once power taken over and Monica Macovei brought to the Justice Ministry, for a while PSD leaders were summoned to the National Anti-corruption Prosecutor’s Office (PNA) later on turned into a Department (DNA). But most of the cases came down to image games. The Corneliu Iacubov affair, and most recently Omar Hayssam’s escape got the corruption theme and the fight against corruption suspects devoid of credibility.

By no means accidentally, in the July 14 meeting of the Country Supreme Defence Council (CSAT), President Traian Băsescu launches a new theme: declassification of CNSAS files. While until the Mona Muscă case the topic seemed somewhat laughable (even Dan Voiculescu’s file as a Securitate collaborator seemed a thing of the past!), it nonetheless managed to assert itself and become what the fight against corruption had been not long ago.


Give me the theme, and I will be the no. 1 enemy!


Visits to the National Council for Securitate Archive Investigation (CNSAS) increasingly resemble what visits to DNA or the General Prosecutor’s Office used to be. The institution has difficulties coping with pressure of any kind, and its own members admit that it was too big a theme for them to manage without a coherent legislative package and without sound public legitimacy.

Mona Muscă was the perfect case, a substantial public legitimacy source for this endeavour, simply because she was Traian Băsescu’s main competitor in terms of popularity rates. Moreover, just as Traian Băsescu used to be, Mona Muscă seemed a benchmark and a point of reference for the entire Romanian political community. The topic quickly grew into a crisis in which arguments, even those coming from the most intellectual of the intellectuals, could not take Mona Musca’s side.

Dan Voiculescu’s accusations, another major source of legitimacy for the expozsure endeavour, sent the ball in Traian Băsescu’s court. A paradoxical and unprecedented occurrence, Traian Băsescu made a point of answering the Conservative leader twice. The first time, occasionally, in Eforie, when, asked whether he collaborated with former Securitate he answered, “I did what I had to do!” and the second time in a press conference. But the answers did not target the Conservative leader, whose accusations were mere pretexts.

President Traian Băsescu had tried twice before to impose the theme: first, when he launched the national security law package, drawn up in Cotroceni, and later when he extended the interim mandate of the secret service heads and tried to push Parliament into discussing the security package. Without doubt, none of the two topics had the strength and conflict potential needed to impose an issue on the public agenda. As we can see once again, only a large-scale media crisis manages to entail a shift in social perception, rearranging the agenda setting.


Building the theme’s public legitimacy


In order for the theme to not only stay for as long as possible on the media agenda, but also to grow into a significant theme in the public perception, both victims and a justice-seeking civilizing hero were necessary.

Both cases, Dan Voiculescu and Mona Muscă, seem to be stakes in the political battle between the Democrats and the other parties, PNL in particular.

Dan Voiculescu seemed beheaded after the scandal around his Securitate file. Today, in a move to preserve the party’s credibility and blackmail potential, PC uses all means to attack PD and Traian Băsescu. In the short run, it may gain visibility, but in the medium and long run losses are substantial, and they are felt at a political level. Because the paradigm preserved and constantly activated by PD is the “prisoner’s dilemma,” the zero-sum game, where anything lost by political opponent is won by the Democrats. Paradoxically enough, the image game does not benefit Dan Voiculescu, but PD, which has two trump cards at present: on the one hand, it manages to act as a great party, which no longer generates noisy disputes and, on the other hand, it has no relevant leaders who may be suspected of having been involved in political policing. When PD acted like an anti-system party, it lent itself to accusations of ill-will, but as soon as another party (ironically, the very party Traian Băsescu had labelled as “the immoral solution”!) launches a message to Coalition parties, PD can only come out the winner. Certainly, PD may have well played the victim, by taking advantage of the public sensitivity triggered by the “underdog” effect. But it was neither the moment, nor the case to: with PD acting as a great party, PC can only be a contemptible party at best; more importantly, the political goal is to win the battle against PNL.

Mona Muscă was a lot closer to Cotroceni and Theodor Stolojan than to Călin Popescu Tăriceanu or PNL. For this reason, Mona Muscă’s collateral effects were without doubt inside PNL. A senior leader of the Liberal dissidence could have only ended up sacrificed by her colleagues. The move was not as inspired as it may seem, or at least PNL didn’t gain much out of it. We are still to see to what extent Mona Muscă manages to generate movements in the party, among Liberal groups.

The one to win in this balance of forces, both at a theme level and at a media level, was Traian Băsescu. The President won through his civilising hero image (“a Romania joining the EU with the former political police archives intact was impossible to conceive”; “I have ...asked for the former Securitate archives to be declassified because my predecessors didn’t do it on time”) and also by playing the justice-maker part, for which he has full legitimacy: “I don’t mean to protect anyone or attack anyone by declassifying the files; I did what I had to do. In this respect I believe I have nothing to be accused of.”


A societal cleavage, not yet


If we look at recent opinion polls, we see that respondents continue to quote “the fight against corruption” as the main theme of interest, but after the Mona Muscă affair, the file declassification issue is expected to turn into one of the major concerns on the public agenda.

One more variable is nonetheless necessary to create the cleavage. In societies with insufficiently consolidated democracies, cleavages are generated on two components: the economic one, reflected on the income level, and the authoritarian – justice-making one, represented at a political leadership level. The fight against corruption topic managed to effect a divide when the perception was formed according to which the main cause of poverty is the corruption of the corrupt, and that the corrupt were the ones having most financial and power resources.

We are yet to see which variable will be attached to the file declassification theme, so as to help it find its direct counterpart among current public interests.


By Ana-Maria Tănase

Publicat în : English  de la numărul 41


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