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The Great Change

Arthur SUCIU, Radu CUCUTĂ, Daniel BUTI

Elections to the European Parliament revealed the beginning of a paradigm shift, a change from the prevalence of the left to a prevalence of the right. This trend is quite likely to maintain in the next elections as well. Under these circumstances, parties must find solutions to achieve as good results as possible.

PNL and PSD will return to their traditional electorate. On the other side, the presidential party set up by PD and PLD on Traian Băsescu’s orders, hopes to win next year’s local and parlia­mentary elections.

Establishment of the presidential party

Although it won the EP election, the Democratic Party hardly confirmed the status created by opinion polls, that of a party which categorically dominates the political arena. PD is experiencing a top-to-bottom transformation. Moreo­ver, the positive, yet small percentage won by PLD in the November 25 ballot questioned the chances of a landslide victory in 2008. This is why the PD-PLD merger has become necessary. While declared — generally by those who don’t read the small print of politics — the true winner of the election to the European Parliament, PLD has now proven its limitations. This party is the brainchild of President Băsescu and of Theodor Stolojan. It was originally inten­ded to create a rift in PNL, which would reverse the power ratio in the Li­beral Party. The goal was to coa­gu­late a critical mass to replace the party leadership structure, which are hostile to President Băsescu. The failure of this endeavour entailed the splintering of PNL as “Platform” members broke up with the party. Ever since, the objective of the new party (PLD) has been to win over as much as possible of the Liberal electorate. The test was, obviously, the election for the EP. But not only did the ballot prove that the Liberal-Democrats fell flat, but it also indicated that the party headed by Theodor Stolojan and backed by Traian Băsescu tends to compete with PD for electorate. Under these circums­tan­ces, the existence of PLD is no longer justified. The solution: the merger, in the name of the initial project of “Justice” and “Truth.”
The birth of PDL (or whichever the name of the “new” party) will reveal, if at all necessary, the structural problem that domestic parties face. The ques­tion legitimately arises of whether we are dealing with political parties in the classical sense of the word, or with vested interests, camarillas or factions. Because it is unacceptable for the merger of two such organisations to occur all of a sudden, on the spur of the moment. The event created by PD and PLD defies the very logic governing the life of a political party. Moreover, it tends to become something entirely different from what the leaders of the two parties announced. According to statements by the lead actors (Emil Boc and Theodor Stolojan) and in accordance with Law No. 14/2003 on political parties, what we see is a reorganisation of the two parties, carried out by means of a merger. This process “results in a new political party, which subrogates the rights and obligations of the political parties having merged” (art. 40, paragraph 1, Law No. 14/2003). In actual fact, what happens with PD and PLD is a lot closer to what the law defines as absorption (which, in this particular case, will lead to the change of the party name as well). While none of the participants retains its status as a legal entity, as “original party terminates its activity” (art. 39, paragraph 1), PDL will heavily rely on the infrastructure and resources of PD. As such, the merger is a compromise for the Democrats, who are giving up the PD brand (this is a rather controversial aspect: there are voices requesting that the symbolic resource represented by the party name and acronym should the retained). The evolution of the new party in 2008 largely depends on President Băsescu’s positioning and moves.
To return to PD and its heir, PDL, the merger may be intended by the President to entail a change in the paradigm within which the political arena operates. At present, the battle for a place on the central electoral axis is fought by two Opposition actors. Consequently, both PD (PDL) and PSD need to adopt a critical relation with both Power and Opposition. This is an unusual situation, as the clash between the main protagonists takes place outside the Power/Opposition framework. The governmental status of a medium-strength party, PNL, makes the political arena a tri-polar one. In such cases balance will always be weak and short-lived. Because it is the nature of political systems to tend towards dualism. So far, this has operated, to a certain extent, on grounds of a reported cooperation of PSD and PNL. When most parliamentary parties embraced the presidential line of thought, dualism operated once again, with Traian Băsescu as a vector. But today the Social Democrats seem willing to take unconditional distance from both PNL and PD (PDL) and to act as a genuine Opposition party. Should the Social Democrats’ stance be preserved in spite of the internal pressures and tensions, the presidential party may see its dreams of primacy jeopardised. Therefore, the role of PDL may be to re-create and impose dualism. This may be achieved by trying to remove the Liberals from their position as major right-wing party and by creating a balance, alongside PSD, on the left/right axis (the concepts of right and left are used here on the basis of the public perception of a party being left or right wing, and also of the ideology professed by the respective parties).
Although any simplification of the political arena and narrowing down of the electoral offer generally ensures a bonus from the electorate, the success of PD (PDL) is far from certain. Traian Băsescu’s party remains the major contender for governmental positions, but in this new form it is yet to take an electoral test. Its performance depends to a large (indeed too large) extent on the President’s achievements and failures. And as the referendum on the uninominal voting system has proved, the Head of State may well fail.

About the left

In terms of political performance, the year 2007 was hardly a successful one for Mircea Geoană’s party. The results of the EP election may be regarded as the best indicator for the party performance. And the electoral score (close to the all-time low hit by the party in 1996), along with the small number of votes it carried (2.7 million less than in 2004) seem to be the most tale-telling evidence that PSD has lost ground. There are several important elements to consider.
On the one hand, the election for the European Parliament must be interpreted in its larger political and imagery framework. In terms of their incidence, the conclusions that we may draw from PSD’s results cannot go any deeper than the contrast to the score and vote numbers in 2004. The EP election is not the most accurate indicator for the PSD performance (or underperformance), although the short period to the year end and the special importance attached as a rule to electoral moments would define it as one. The election for the European Parliament has a low comparative relevance for several reasons. On the one hand, there is no realistic reference term. The dynamics of left-wing (and other) parties in former communist states, currently members of EU and NATO, is not necessarily relevant per se (there are significant original features in their Romanian counterparts, and PSD certainly has its own, highly relevant peculiarities).
Neither can we refer to the experience of other Eastern European states (basically, each has only experienced one such election, in June 2004). Turnout rates were low in all these elections—and the Bulgarian case, with ATAKA party winning by a comfortable margin, is also irrelevant, considering that PRM and PNG failed to reach the electoral threshold. In other words, the election for the European Parliament is only the first event in an electoral series that opens in front of Romanian political actors. Its result cannot be contrasted to similar events in Eastern European states. On the other hand, if there is anything relevant that the EU-15 experience may indicate, this is the major diffe­rence between the elections for the European legislative body and the national one (heavily influenced by the electoral system used).
In this framework, the result achie­ved by PSD, which defines it as the second best party in Romania, is not in itself indicative of the party’s prospects or of the trend that the party will dis­play in the ensuing period. The European election has, above all, tested Romanian parties for flexibility and adjustment to the new rules of the electoral competition (a new type of ballot, separate elections for president, Parliament and local authorities, possibly a new electoral system). In this context, although PSD ranks second (with an all-time low on the number of votes), the result is not bad.
Nonetheless, beyond the purely statistical context of the electoral performance, there are two other levels at which we should analyse the performance of the Social Democrats, who compete for the first time as the sole left-wing party in the local political arena. On the one hand, we may talk about the image-related stake of the disputes in which the Social Demo­cra­ts have been involved. On the other hand, the institutional objectives of PSD are equally important. If Premier Tări­ceanu was right to warn that attention will be diverted from Euro­pean topics to the domestic political debate, this means that the Social Democrats’ performance must be seen in light of their actions and endeavours in the domestic political arena.
Thus, the leadership structure recon­firmed in last year’s internal election (Mircea Geoană won a second term in office in December 2006) pursued a number of (not necessarily complementary) institutional goals. From supporting the Tăriceanu Cabinet (after the Democrats were kicked out of the ruling coalition) to the impea­ch­ment of the President, and to the no-confidence motion against the very Cabinet it backed this spring, PSD has pursued several institutional goals. One of the recurrent themes in PSD leaders’ rhetoric was the allotment of public funds to PSD mayors — the extent to which the change in positions helped achieve this goal is still uncertain. Concurrently, another highly important goal of PSD moves was to join a governing coalition. This goal has shaped the Social Democrats’ moves more than once. The idea, which emer­ged after PD was expelled from the Cabinet, was rehashed in the run-up to the impeachment attempt, with a third major round of talks carried out before the no-confidence motion against the Tăriceanu Cabinet was tabled. After the election, the idea of PSD joining in the government was resumed, once again with no avail.
The PSD positioning as the leading actor in the attempt to impeach the President, and also as the main supporter of the no-confidence motion, were expected to clarify the role played by PSD in the political arena. But the pursuit of a unilateral opposition to a right-wing Power (president and premier) came to naught, as PSD worked with both political forces on specific projects: with the President for introduction of the uninominal voting system; with the Liberals in the move to impeach the President. The swing of PSD between the two political forces was confusing, particularly as the Social Democrats were the main force in the Legislative body. Changing the message targets only made the Social Democrats’ political position relative. The negative impact of this message on voters is evident: on the one hand, PSD entered into these pro or anti-presidential agreements as the lesser actor (although the traditional position of the party was that of an efficient competitor for the leading place on the political stage); on the other hand, in terms of image party leaders faced a rather sharp internal opposition, although (for the time being) lacking the institutional levers to force a reassessment of the internal power ratio. Thus, PSD leaders found themselves closely monitored within the party and outperformed as regards the launch of image-related messages (even the cooperation with PNL on specific topics was proposed by Adrian Năstase as a medium-term political direction of the party). Adrian Năst­se’s position is by no means unique, as criticism against party leaders is incorporated in a virtually eclectic message, hard to summarise, and having the discontent with the current situation as the only shared attribute 
Trying to act pragmatically, PSD has constantly over-assessed its position. A substantial parliamentary presence is a decisive argument, but it is not enou­gh to change the power ratio in the Romanian political system. Thus, of all the important opportunities (govern­ment resh­uffling, impeaching the President, no-confidence motion, EP election) the Social Democrats’ only achievement by year end is the freezing of the draft budget — insuf­ficient compensation, particularly given the results of the November ballot.
While for the electorate of other parties the failure of political manoe­uvres is not discouraging, for PSD voters the second-rank position in a political stage dominated by the competitors’ agenda is not necessarily a significant disincentive. If the analysis of electoral scores indicates a counter-performance of the Social Democrats, this is the low turnout of PSD voters, both in the May refe­rendum and in the November election and referendum. The continuous swinging of PSD between PD and PNL, the incapacity of the party to play as an “honest broker” are not only political moves that failed to secure institutional achievements, but also an unacceptable message for its own electorate. PSD is unable to ensure the consistency of party messages, and is even less capable of steady critical rhetoric. The relativity of its political position is also revealed by the incapacity of PSD to stand out as an Opposition party — a position appa­rently seized by PD.
Returning to the Premier’s me­ssage, the main reason why the PSD position in the November election is not encouraging is the failure to reach domestic political goals. The Social Democrats’ political strategy was inadequately outlined. One may say that PSD played a tactical game, with separate objectives set for each political context in which it was involved, but all of these objectives were secondary to the political evolution of the party. Moreover, the number of objectives pursued was large enough to make political and image resources insufficient. This made PSD unpredictable, unlike PNL or PD, whose political goals remained constant and were communicated to the electorate: securing a stable government and promoting legislative initiatives, for PNL; organising early elections (up to a point), criticising PNL and backing the President’s projects, for PD. The result of PSD was not entailed by inadequate assimilation of the European rhetoric, but rather by the poor domestic results.
PSD currently has a double problem: one related to politics and to image. In political terms, parliamentary leverage is no longer an asset. Because the future political negotia­tions will be based on the confirmed electoral ratio. PSD remains a party with 37% of the MP seats, but with a mere 23% electoral share. This confir­mation leaves little room to manoeuvre for the Social Democrats, who are in addition forced into reactive behaviour (since the President-Premier dispute still shapes the agenda). In terms of image, the problem of PSD is how to restore efficient communication with its own electorate. In this context, the decision to act as an opposition party, announced further to the EP election, is a positive signal. Nonetheless, the very disputes within the party (another novelty for a party whose latest violent splintering—the establishment of APR—occurred back in June 1997) are a dissonant message sent to its own electorate. Still, a leadership change is a distant prospect (with key promoters quickly giving up the idea). Incumbent leaders seem too weak to steer the party, but strong enough, for the moment, to prevent the creation of an alternative internal pole.

The Liberal “Hard Nut”

President Traian Băsescu saw a double flop in relation to PNL: the failure to remove this party from Power and to impose PLD as an alternative to Tăriceanu’s Liberals. After three years of relentless attacks against the Government, PNL got an acceptable result in the EP election. Pessimistic predictions that PNL will share the fate of PNȚCD were disproved. But this is not to mean that the Liberals couldn’t have done better than just keep its loyal electorate or that the party couldn’t have got a higher score in the 2008 elections.
Traian Băsescu hinted from the very beginning that he planned to set up a presidential party. In a first stage he tried to do this with the Liberals, and his proviso was that PD would be the first among equals. While the project of a large right-wing party was politically correct, the PD primacy was unfair. This bias on the part of the President led to the failure of the PNL-PD merger, which entailed the divorce of the two parties and the splintering of PNL. The merger project was not abandoned, but only modified. In this view, a distinction was necessary between Stolojan’s “good” Liberals and Tăriceanu’s “bad” ones. But as the EP election showed, the distinction did not work, and Stolojan’s Liberals looked like small Democrats rather than like Liberals.
Just like PSD, which wonders whether the fall to the second rank is irreversible, PNL needs to find out whether it lost everything to the presidential party, or all can still be recovered in the local and parlia­men­tary elections. The answer to these questions will shape the strategy of the two parties in 2008.
The establishment of the presi­den­tial party may prompt PSD to act as a left-wing pole. The big problem for PSD is the right-wing orientation of the entire political spectrum. Should PSD radicalise all parties against it, we may see the left wing undermined. The right-wing trend revealed by the EP election seems to be the key element which will also be confirmed in future ballots.

UDMR, a misleading success

For UDMR, the result of the EP election is a success and a warning alike. The party’s electoral campaign and political moves were driven by the threat of losing the parliamentary party status. The threat of the hardliners, which harshly criticised the UDMR performance, the failed negotiations with them (in which the radicals acted as the superiors and judges of the UDMR policies and staff), Laszlo Tokes’s candidacy — all these ele­ments had the party under signifi­cant pressure. The emergence of a concrete and threatening political competitor also forced UDMR to face a new positioning problem (that the party had never had before): for the first time, the Union could be perceived as a ruling party, subject to relevant rules (elec­toral erosion). The menace of electoral competition—which jeopardises the parliamentary presence of UDMR—was not only an element for the leadership to consider, but also an image vector, which hinted at two possible consequences of the competition over the Magyar votes: emergence of a new parliamentary party replacing UDMR, or the failure of the two competitors to reach the electoral threshold (in which case the Magyar minority was left wi­thout representation in the Legislative body).
But the election result indicates that, far from being a used up political actor, undermined by the very efforts to stay in Power, UDMR remains a viable party, able to make full use of its institutional advantages. In fact, one may argue that the competitive edge of UDMR, against the hardliners represented by Laszlo Tokes, is precisely the institutional dimension that its competitors lack. UDMR mana­ged to mobilise its electorate and to counter the radicals’ pro-autonomy rhetoric, which over-emphasised this electoral topic throughout the cam­paign (the core of the image alternative to UDMR). The result — in institutional terms — is not spectacular, as it is close to the average score UDMR made in all elections. On the other hand, one must take into account that the prospect of electoral competition was not eliminated. Indeed, UDMR proved to be a vigorous player which met its objectives. But in case of higher turnout rates with the Romanian electorate, failure to reach the elec­to­ral threshold is a major risk that the Magyar leaders must keep in mind. Also, although the high mobilisation of the electorate was a strength, UDMR should not overlook that Laszlo Tokes had a similar performance. In addition, UDMR risks failing to rise to expec­tations: autonomy is easy to promise, but hard to achieve.
The conclusion of elections for UDMR is not necessarily positive — the party is an actor hard to do away with, but the emergence of political compe­ti­tion is no longer a prospect, but rather a fact to be kept in mind for next year’s elections. UDMR managed to take over the pro-autonomy rhetoric and mobilise the electorate. However, the problems revealed by Laszlo Tokes’s success have not been tackled. UDMR beco­mes a ruling party, with a leadership that competitors may label as corrupt, and which could use new, younger leaders. Broadly speaking, success in the EP election is just a respite before tackling the political problems that generated the idea of an alternative project in the Magyar electorate.
The battle below the threshold
Both PC and PIN were far from reaching the electoral threshold. Still, the results of the two parties have starkly different meanings. Whereas PC has reached a sufficiently high institutional power level (a parlia­men­tary party, twice a member of ruling coalitions), PIN is, in spite of its presen­ce in Parliament, a new competitor lacking even the indirect electoral endor­sement that PC has (the latter was elected to Parliament thanks to an electoral alliance with PSD). Thus, although electoral forecasts for the two parties saw them as unable to reach the electoral threshold, expectations based on their position in the political spectrum were different. In this con­text, PIN managing to carry close to half of the number of votes required for Parliament entry (had PIN backed an independent candidate, the party would have only needed another 1% of the votes to reach this lower threshold) is positive feed-back—particularly as in certain constituencies the required level was outdone. For PC, which has more substantial image and insti­tu­tio­nal advantages, the failure is signi­fi­cant. Although party recognition rates are fine, its image fails to secure enough electoral capital. On the other hand, mention must be made that PIN came up with campaigning novelties (the use of the virtual space and a relaxed campaign were seen with friendly eyes). Nonetheless, the “virtual electoral market” is an outpost of former DA Alliance parties, which curbs the growth of PIN. PC in exchange pays an electoral price for its inability to outline its image; its blurred image was not clarified by either its leader’s resignation as an MP, not his announced withdrawal as party chairman. Therefore, while PIN tried to create its image in an area already dominated by a lot more powerful competitors, PC has failed to move beyond failed attempts.
The results of PNG and PRM in the November election are without doubt the surprises of this ballot. For both parties, the recent scores are all-time lows, and overcoming them requires major political and image-related efforts.

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