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Local elections will deepen current political conflict

Arthur SUCIU

The local elections will entail multiple and far-reaching changes in the political life, triggered by the introduction of the uninominal voting for the chairmanship of county councils, by the new forms of access to resources and the very complex political situation. The shift in emphasis from the central to the local administration already took place in 2004, when leading representatives of PD, in particular, won the mayor seats in major cities, raising the stakes in the race for city halls. This time around, changes will be a lot deeper.

County gate-keepers

Mass-media have expressed concerns that the introduction of the uninominal voting system for the election of county council chairs will reload the PSD local barons. Possible, but not essential in explaining this new phenomenon. Because local barons, whether from PSD or other parties, will control — at least in part — the access to resources in a county, and will become much more powerful players than they used to be, both at a local and at a national level. As they have direct links to governmental funds, that they are to distribute to town halls, county council chairmen will be the virtual gate-kee­pers in local politics. They will be elected by a larger number of citizens than a mayor or MP is, and without doubt they will try to take full advantage of this legitimacy, claiming broader attributions. Their political importance will therefore outweigh that of city mayors and of MPs. The county council uninominal system is almost certain to turn the current admi­nistrative units into quasi-auto­nomous regions, if not fiefs controlled by county-level decision-makers. This will eventually lead to a political levelling at a county level. There will be entire counties controlled by certain parties, and everything will revolve around this control, because basically it secures access to the key source: the Government. Voters will be explicitly told that voting for a party of the same political colour as the county council chairman means one additional chan­ce to benefit from more funds from the Government in order to solve local problems.
The introduction of the uninominal voting system generates complex relationships between MPs and chairs of county councils. Elected in a smaller constituency than a county, MPs will also be the representative of the na­tion (under the constitutional principle of the non-imperative mandate). MPs will be probably more legitimate than they used to be, but less legitimate than county council chairpersons. The latter will enjoy larger representation coverage, while at the same time being directly responsible for their own elec­toral pools. The strange occu­rren­ce that an MP is less legitimate than an elected local official will distort power relations, in the sense that MPs may find themselves subordinated to the county council chairpersons in order to be able to keep their fiefdoms. This is actually what Traian Băsescu did when he contrasted his direct election by the nation to the election of MPs in constituencies. A proof that this is not mere speculation is the announ­ce­ment of the PD-L parliamentarian Radu Berceanu for the chairmanship of the Dolj County Council. Forecasting what would happen, Berceanu claimed Parliament was no longer a challenge for him. Also, PD-L heavyweight and Deputy Gheorghe Flutur will run for the helm of the Suceava County Council. Adding to this is the effort of the PSD Deputy Miron Mitrea to impose the uninominal voting system in the county council, at the request of the party’s local barons in Moldavia. Mention should be made that county council chiefs already had significant influence at a local and often at a central level as well (in 2001-2004 there were local party branches headed by barons, where the party president Adrian Năstase himself was unable to have his say).

Towards a local Mafia system

At least in a first stage, i.e. in the forthcoming term in office, chances are the coagulation will not take place, and, on the contrary, we may witness a broadening of the political conflict, which would expand from central structures to local ones. Due to its high approval rates, PD-L is likely to win the most county council chairs (as it is a one-round election), whereas the ruling PNL has poor chances to access these positions. On the other hand, the majority in the same councils may be made up by PNL and PSD. Similar occurrences will be reported without doubt in local councils and in relationships between the county council and town halls. Those county council chiefs who are not members of the ruling party will harshly oppose Power and accuse it of biased fund distribution, as Traian Băsescu did when a Mayor General of Bucharest. There­fore, after the elections and depending on temporary political interests, the Budget Act is expected to be modified so that the money may reach the right people. But the Gover­nment will have a hard time explaining why funds must be channelled, let’s say, towards town halls rather than to the county officials elected in the uninominal system. In turn, mayors will complain that county council chairmen will not earmark sufficient funds for their needs. The entire network will generate bottlenecks, as it is the case today as well, and it will end up by creating a very efficient local mafia system.

The capital city as an opportunity, in political terms as well

The prospect of actual regiona­lisa­tion makes any local administration position a highly important one. While in the 2004 election the results in Bucharest and Cluj had a major impact on the parliamentary and presidential elections, reinforcing a particular trend, in 2008 things will likely be diffe­rent. The dissemination of power towards the local administration ma­kes the Bucharest election to be only about the interests of Bucharest locals. Unquestionably, only time will tell whether the people of Bucharest have made a political choice, with a sym­bolic value for the country as a whole, or a practical choice, so as to have local interests met. What is evident at this stage however is that Bucharest locals are losing interest in political-symbolical choices. While the capital city remains an essential target, this has to do increasingly with the development potential of the city, with the opportunities it can offer.
For the time being, the type of choice that citizens will make is not clear, which is why the main parties, PSD and PD-L, have problems choosing their candidates. PSD is to choose between the Bucharest branch leader Marean Vanghelie and doctor Oprescu, but none of them seems the best solution. In turn, PD-L is yet to decide on its runner, with nominees including the district 3 mayor Liviu Negoiță and the PD-L secretary general Vasile Blaga. Since they haven’t made up their minds on the candidate for the City Hall, the question of district candidates has not even been tackled. These uncertainties are in part accounted for by the situation within parties. Indeed, the competition bet­ween Oprescu and Vanghelie is a reflection of the PSD internecine war between the Geoană and the Iliescu-Năstase camps. The beginning of the end for PSD, in 2004, was the loss of the Bucharest City Hall (by the incumbent president Mircea Geoană). This is also where the PSD upturn may begin. Oprescu is the old guard in PSD, the one whose victory in Bucharest is supposed to rehash the hopes of the Iliescu-Năstase group. But on the one hand, the paradigm that we saw at work in 2004 is no longer viable today (a return to the two political blocs headed by Băsescu and Năstase is highly unlikely now); on the other hand, the political role of the Bucharest City Hall is changing (the city hall is increasingly what it is supposed to be, namely an administrative unit). Pro­bably the best option for PSD would be to nominate a new-guard politician, who is not rejected by Iliescu and Năs­tase’s people either (Cristian Diaco­nescu may be one such candidate).
With PD-L, something else is on the line: the Democrats fear that they may lose the City Hall, after Traian Băsescu had turned it into their stronghold. The loss of the City Hall would be a tough blow for PD-L leaders, particularly consi­dering that the current Demo­cratic-Liberal Mayor has failed people’s expectations. On the other hand, in the runoff PNL is willing to back the PSD candidate (except Vanghelie, pro­ba­bly), should the Liberals’ Ludovic Orban fail to win enough votes.
A turning point for all parties
The very complex central political situation will influence this year’s local elections after all. Beyond local com­mu­nities’ wish to elect as good repre­sentatives as possible, the political dimension of the election cannot be overlooked. In order to win seats and form majorities, PSD and PNL will have to join forces at a local level. In spite of the two parties’ attempts to avoid a political deal, the local elections will leave them no other choice. It will no longer be possible to deny the ties between PNL and PSD, which would force them into a pre-electoral alliance. After the local elections, one of the prickliest issues for PSD and PNL will be to define and manage their relation­ship.
This year’s local elections are ill-timed for all parties. After the National Council meeting this year, the turmoil in PSD seems to ease out. But the party is far from its past glory. The local elections may confirm its electoral dive. PNL, which is also falling, is about to lose important areas that it used to control, particularly in the urban envi­ron­ment. Although it is expected to win a large number of town halls and county councils, PD-L may have pro­ble­ms forming majorities and, more im­por­tantly, it may miss the opportunity of becoming a majority party. The local elections will most likely yield no clear winner whatsoever.

By Arthur SUCIU 
Publicat în : English  de la numărul 55


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