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Parties at a crossroads before the elections

Arthur SUCIU

With the parliamentary election drawing closer, the main political parties are facing dilemmas. The Liberal Democratic Party (PD-L) seems to have given up hopes of single-handedly forming the government, and because of Traian Băsescu’s radical political style, it seems to have few options for a ruling alliance. The Social Democratic Party (PSD), which failed to reform itself, now has serious difficulties returning to the 2004 Năstase paradigm. The system has somewhat structured itself into the “two and a half parties” formula, and the National Liberal Party (PNL), which is the “half,” is in search of a Liberal “whole” to promote. Ultimately, all three parties experience major paradigm crises.

Boc, a stumbling block for PD-L

The election for the European Parliament, then the refe­ren­dum on the uninominal voting system and the local elections made PD-L the chief political force, but the party is yet to gain legitimacy as the main right-wing force. The President’s radical style constantly boosted PD-L, but now it reduces its chances to win power. PD-L grew from one election to the next; after the local ballot, Traian Băsescu resumed his efforts to win further percentage points for PD-L. And with the uninominal voting expected to concentrate power around large parties, the Liberal Democrats’ chan­ces should also increase. Still, the chan­ces of PD-L rising to power are disputed. The party seems to have reached its electoral limits, and Traian Băsescu’s ability to win over new voters is on the slope. Exceptional circums­tances (President Traian Băsescu’s impeachment) helped PD double its score, and these circumstances no longer exist. Moreover, the paradigm of the President’s rhetoric, i.e. fighting the wicked system, has lost ground for the past year. This is why PD-L is rather uneasy about the general election.
We should remember that PD was given a major boost primarily by Traian Băsescu’s win in the Bucharest local election and Emil Boc’s in Cluj-Napoca. In the early 2000, PD was a party on the verge of extinction, which is why it resolved to strengthen its ranks by pursuing local administration seats. In the next elections, in 2008, the new PD-L once again got its chief leaders involved in this battle, but it lost the Bucharest City Hall. There’s a general feeling that PD-L has limited its scope to local politics (but it lost the main local administration position), that it is a party which runs out of patience or out of breath when it is part of the government or when trying to get there. The symbol of PD as “a party of ma­yors” (a positive label in the past, al­most negative today) is president Emil Boc himself. In spite of his success in the local election, he is more of a problem than a solution for his party at present.
The flaws in Boc’s image add to the ideological inconsistencies of his party. In 2005, PD turned overnight — and over Boc’s head — into a right-wing party. In terms of his political worth, this is when the role of the PD presi­dent ended. Because such a change required at least the replacement of the president. Emil Boc has gradually lost his nation-wide relevance, growing into a local leader, a mayor. The current problems in PD-L reflect this leader­ship crisis.
There is no doubt that Traian Bă­sescu is responsible for making and even­tually breaking Emil Boc. The lat­ter was told to run for the Cluj-Napo­ca mayoralty (at a time when Boc was an excellent MP); he was forced to change the orientation of the party (although Boc is obviously a left-wing politician), and he was imprisoned for good in a new mayor mandate. Boc’s fall paved the way for the rise of Theodor Sto­lo­jan. At present, PD-L members are consi­dering the transfer of party presidency to the ex-PNL leader.
After winning the 2004 elections, Traian Băsescu should have expected the right to have slim chances of winning a new term in power in the next elections. He should have pur­sued his goal of making PD the largest party, without changing its doctrine, and at present PD would have been an alter­native to PSD, in the left-wing corridor. But this did not happen, because Traian Băsescu decided to grow with the help of PNL, and to gain legitimacy as “a right-wing axis” at the expense of PNL. The battle over legitimacy is what split PNL between Tăriceanu’s Liberals and Stolojan’s Liberals. After taking this “liberal” course, Băsescu and PD-L were bound to eventually get to Stolojan.

Băsescu-Stolojan: tear trade-off

Before analysing whether Stolojan is a good choice, we should see whether his election as a president of PD-L is possible. Will the old PD heavyweights have a former Liberal president lead them, backed by ano­ther ex-Liberal president, Valeriu Stoica (to whom Stolojan owes his return to top-level politics)? If this was what it took for PD-L to get in power, PD lea­ders would likely pay the price. At the moment, although he still goes to great lengths to push PD-L up (through his involvement in flood relief efforts, the attempt to re-launch the fight against corruption, etc.), Traian Băsescu is fal­ling in polls. Stolojan — after finally ha­ving enough rest — should bring a breath of fresh air to PD-L, and move the party forward. Could this be a good time for Traian Băsescu to have a “nervous breakdown,” for him to trade off tears with his former Alliance partner?
Theodor Stolojan’s “comeback” (perhaps on October 2, the day when he pulled out from the presidential race in 2004) looks like a good solution, although rather risky for PD-L. It is yet to pass an electoral test. There’s no telling at this point whether making Stolojan the leader of PD-L will be of any particular interest to the electorate. This, and the opposition of old PD leaders to Stolojan’s election as party president, may lead to a com­pro­mise: Boc may remain the party president, and Stolojan may be nomi­nated by Traian Băsescu as would-be premier.
To return to Traian Băsescu’s older and more general idea that he is the axis of the right. I believe everything revolves around this idea. The President’s biggest fear had to do with the legitimacy of his right-wing paradigm. As the previous elections proved, not only did PNL (from which Băsescu had taken over the liberal direction) not drop in polls; on the contrary, Premier Tăriceanu’s party got an unexpectedly good score and is on the rise. Quite su­rprisingly, Băsescu is going down, and Tăriceanu up. The expla­nation is of a political nature. Tra­ian Băsescu and PD-L have not yet proved to be a genuine, constructive right-wing force. Although PD-L has become an important party (more important than PNL), it seems to have no further symbolic resources in the electoral battle. What should Traian Băsescu do now? He needs to prove that his is a right-wing party. PD-L must enter the electoral race as a markedly right-wing party, and the only way to prove this is to quickly elect Theodor Stolojan as president of the party.

The Christian-Democrats: regaining relevance

As of recently, there has been an apparently inexplicable increase of the political interest in PNȚCD, and parti­cularly in former president of Romania  Emil Constantinescu’s philosophic views, also shared by former premier Victor Ciorbea. After PNL offered eligi­ble seats to some Christian Democrats (not without local opposition), PD-L thou­ght of doing the same. As usual, PNȚCD found itself torn by a new conflict, this time around, between those who favour Băsescu and those who favour the Liberals. Obviously, this interest is not driven by electoral, but by paradigmatic goals; in the context of our recent history, it incorporates refe­ren­ces to the political clashes of the early ‘90s, the great battle against Iliescu and PDSR, and, not least, to the Revolution and the miners’ riots. In Tra­ian Băsescu’s view, the Constan­ti­nescu regime was a failure, which is why a new beginning was necessary. And it started with his inauguration as president, after the 2004 election. But in Emil Constantinescu’s view, which Tăriceanu’s Liberals seem to adopt ever more extensively, the 1996 victory of CDR is the onset of Romania’s journey towards democracy, towards the West. While for Traian Băsescu the “Orange Revolution” was a new begin­ning, for Emil Constantinescu, and now for the Liberals, it was only supposed to be a development or completion of the 1996 Change.
But this goal was only undertaken by the Liberal government; Traian Băsescu initiated a new paradigm instead, in a rather populist manner, and has illicitly claimed legitimacy from the right wing and Liberalism. A return to the 1996 Change would thus work to expose Traian Băsescu’s pretence and political intentions. As for the Liberal Democrats, they are interested in the Christian-Democrats for entirely diffe­rent reasons. PD-L is the only party wi­thout a long-standing political tradition, and in its bid for a conservative party status, it may try to get closer to PN­Ț­CD, should the latter renounce Emil Constantinescu. But in winning over some of the Christian Democrats, Traian Băsescu is more likely planning to tear down what’s left of the old PNȚCD, and thus to blow away  hopes for a return to the 1996 Change.

The Liberal Change

In terms of political pragmatics, before the election PNL has a fairly comfortable position. For four years it has governed the country, and has done it almost by itself for the last two years. In early 2005, Premier Tăricea­nu seemed to stand no chance against Traian Băsescu; today, he is certain to see his mandate through.
While in power, PNL was able to take popular measures, e.g. a substan­tial pension raise, which kept it in a reasonable position in polls and later secured it a good score, particularly in the local elections. Tăriceanu relied on the trans-party alliance against early elections, and he was right. As people realised that Traian Băsescu’s crusade against the Government is most often useless, and sometimes indeed un­groun­ded, Tăriceanu’s public image improved considerably. On the eve of elections, PNL is to choose between forming the government with PSD or PD-L, and not between power and opposition.  
In terms of ideology, PNL views the European Union accession on January 1, 2007, as a turning point in the history of Romania. The makeover is, in this view, the Liberals’ doing. The acce­ssion is seen as a process initiated during the CDR and Emil Constan­ti­nescu’s term in office, and completed by the Liberals. This creates an in-depth ideological connection with the CDR mandate, which is regained and reinterpreted in terms of its political and historical consequences, and not in terms of its shortcomings. The accession therefore confirmed that the right had made the best choices, whereas Traian Băsescu is a populist deadlock, a return to the political style of PDSR and Ion Iliescu. PNL argues that, through the accession, it already facilitated a paradigm shift: the shift from Iliescu’s paternalist, two-faced transition State to Tăriceanu’s pro-Western, Liberal, limited-government Sta­te, and Băsescu only tries to reverse this shift.
While the Liberal political theory is probably more accurate than those of other parties, it seems to be shared by few (possibly because of its excessively theoretical nature and of the refe­ren­ces to the CDR era), which forces the Liberals to act upon pragmatic ideas. Still, after the election they will face ideological choices: it is by no means the same if they choose Băsescu or Iliescu, Năstase and Geoană’s PSD.

The PD-L – PNL scenario

Mention must be made from the very beginning that there are at least two reasons which make a PD-L – PNL government hardly attainable. PD-L and PNL compete for the right side of the political spectrum. So far, PNL has been the chief right-wing force. If it agrees to be a junior partner in a gover­nment headed by the Liberal Demo­crats, it will virtually admit to having lost supremacy in the right. Appointing Theodor Stolojan both as president of PD-L, and as premier, is intended both to soothe the fears of the Liberals and, of course, to displease Tăriceanu. PD-L may hope that, after the elections, if Băsescu asked them to replace their leader Tăriceanu, the Liberals would be more comfortable doing it if the president of PD-L was their former leader, Theodor Stolojan.
As I said, the current dilemma of PD-L is to choose between Boc and Stolojan; after the election, PNL may have to choose between Stolojan and Tăriceanu. But this is not the only option for PNL. The second reason which makes a PNL – PD-L alliance very difficult is of a practical nature. The Liberals have every reason to fear that, after the 2009 presidential election, they will be kicked ­out of the government, if only to ensure sym­metry with the 2005-2008 period. While PNL may eventually come to terms with Stolojan in theory, it will never come to terms with Traian Băsescu in practice. This is why the alliance with PSD seems more likely, although not entirely safe.

Năstase, a stumbling block for PSD

In the special meeting of the Chamber of Deputies in which the request filed by the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) regarding the prosecution of PSD Deputies Adrian Năstase and Miron Mitrea was turned down, PNL announced it would vote in favour of the DNA request, alongside PD-L. This position warns on the future options of PNL, as far as its governing together with PSD is con­cer­ned. After Adrian Năstase returned to a top-level position and the good results in the local election, PSD regained hope that it might return to its dominant-party paradigm of the early 2000. Adrian Năstase re-emerged as a possible presidential candidate. However, PSD members don’t dare to aim too high, because they no longer have confidence in Adrian Năstase’s electoral capacity. Furthermore, reha­shing the 2004 presidential battle doesn’t seem the best thing to do, particularly for PSD. If PSD makes a governing alliance with PNL, this needs to be backed by an anti-Băsescu ideology shared by the Liberals. But under no circumstances could the Liberals support Adrian Năstase in the presidential race. As such, Adrian Năstase is more of a stumbling block for a future PNL – PSD cooperation, which comes starkly against previous perceptions. Just like Traian Băsescu, Adrian Năstase is the past that the Liberals detest.
Towards a new political crisis?
The paradigm crisis facing political parties takes the form of odd disso­ciative identities developing within parties. PD-L is split between former Democrats and former Liberals. PNL, which is united for the time being, may split between the supporters of Tăriceanu and those of Stolojan-Băsescu. PSD is split between Năstase and Geoană. The phenomenon may go deeper: the Hungarian community is torn between UDMR and UCM (an alliance was formed in the twelfth hour), while Romanian nationalists are also torn between Gigi Becali and Corneliu Vadim Tudor (the latter has recently made a cooperation offer to “young Gigi”). This is a complex situa­tion, and after the general election Romania may face an unprecedented political crisis. There seem to be two options at present: a PD-L – PNL allian­ce, or a PSD-PNL alliance. But a deci­sion will not be based exclusively on vote returns; parties will also have to keep in mind the 2009 presidential election. Therefore we may witness a crisis that would make governing impossible — at least until a president is elected or a national union govern­ment is formed.
Mention should also be made that certain external factors may impact the result of either the parliamentary elections, or of next year’s presidential election. The global economic crisis is already affecting Romania, which may trigger a change in voters’ orientation, towards the left and towards populists and nationalists. On the other hand, the continuation or deepening of the crisis in the Caucasus may draw people closer to their leader.

By Arthur SUCIU

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