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“More of the same”: Elections without choice in Romania


This article is published in cooperation with the Serbo-Croatian web-portal Bilten.Org

It is customary for people to complain that they have no real choice to vote for in electoral contests. No candidate is really much different from the other. They are so similar that it makes no sense to choose since there is no real choice involved. This is exactly the case of the Romanian Presidential Elections due to be held this year on November 2nd.

This is so not only because all candidates are neoliberals under various guises, but also because none of them is really offering an alternative to the politics of the incumbent president Traian Basescu, whose 10-year stay in power is now coming to a close. What the main contenders are promising is in fact “more of the same”: a continuation of Basescu’s politics but without his personal antics and idiosyncrasies.

Basescu was first elected as president in 2004 on a clear neoliberal and anti-communist agenda: on the one hand, a flat tax of 16%, and on the other, the promise to fight the communist apparatchiks considered responsible for the widespread corruption, poverty and backwardness of the Romanian society. The anti-corruption and anti-communist goals were also in keeping with the pressures coming from the EU before Romania’s 2007 admission, so Basescu could also pose as a staunch European and modernizer. But, as it has always been the case in post-communist Eastern Europe, what lurks behind such slogans of anti-corruption and anti-communism is always the specter of neoliberalism: the dismantling of the state, especially of its social services, and the privatization of its main assets. This program was successful insofar as it had the support of the newly created post-communist middle class, eager to live the dream of the transition. Obviously, such a harsh economic policy led to increased levels of poverty for the lower classes and to the widening of inequalities between various social strata. It also fueled the large streams of work migration of Romanian working hands towards the southern economies of Spain and Italy. This migration diffused the social tensions at home while the remittances sent from abroad helped to conceal the fact that the economic boom between 2004 and 2008 was due to increased indebtedness.

When the bubble burst in 2008/9, across the globe and not only in Romania, President Basescu and his government were at the forefront. They immediately sang the same tune of austerity measures that was being played across Europe. Paradoxically, even though the crisis had systemic causes that were financial and speculative in nature – a fact acknowledged by the president himself in some of his speeches – Basescu nonetheless put the blame for the crisis on inefficient and wasteful state spending. The solution to the crisis was then “more of the same”: more state privatization, more austerity measures, more punishing of the poor. State spending was good only for bailing out the banks.

Basescu almost lost the 2009 elections since the effects of the crisis began to erode his popularity. However, he won in extremis with less than half a percent in his favor and amid accusations of fraud. Once reconfirmed as president for a second mandate, he pushed for one of the most brutal austerity packages in Europe, involving a 25% cut of state salaries, the complete overhaul of the Labor Code to the detriment of the workforce, drastic limitation of state spending, which led to the closure of hundreds of hospitals and schools and the loss of social benefits by hundred of thousands of vulnerable people. As some recent documents have shown, these measures were even more stringent than the IMF demanded. Basescu, just like Ceausescu some 3 decades before him, embarked on a sui generis program of austerity. This, as it was expected, led to widespread social discontent, which exploded on the streets of Bucharest and other major cities during the protest days in January and February 2012. By June of that year, following these protests, the social-democratic opposition led by Victor Ponta came to power on an anti-austerity ticket and Basescu was isolated. His program of reform and harsh austerity seemed finished.

However, Prime Minister Victor Ponta, too, offered “more of the same”. While making only small and largely inconsequential attempts to reverse the austerity measures, he in fact continued the policy of favoring capital in relation to labor. While salaries and pensions were brought back to the initial levels and some of the social security services were resumed, the subordination of labor remained in place and the government continued to care for the profit needs of the big capital. VAT tax stayed at the level set during the crisis despite promises to lower it, while new taxes were added in order to keep the same 16% flat rate intact. Recently, the government lowered the social contribution of firms by 5%, practically starving even more an already collapsing public health care sector.

Victor Ponta is now one of the main contenders of the Presidential elections, the main favorite in fact. For more than 4 years a figurehead of the opposition to Basescu’s policy, Ponta appears to be Basescu’s most likely successor both in terms of policies and style of doing politics. Head of the Social-Democratic Party, Ponta has long abandoned even the remotest reference to Blair’s version of Social-Democracy that the Party used to promote with pride in its glory days from 2000 to 2004. Ponta smugly declared not long ago that he wants to be “the most pro-business PM in Europe”. In the past year, he continually veered towards the right, not only in economic terms, but also politically and ideologically. His campaign slogan is “proud to be a Romanian,” which doubles with the pride of being a Christian Orthodox. Attempting to gather votes from the social stratums most affected by Basescu’s austerity program, Ponta has no qualms to raise the spectrum of populism and nationalism in one breath and one stroke of pen. His recent measures as prime minister were all aimed at ensuring the support of city mayors by extending to them funds to buy the vote of destitute constituencies through petty gifts and amenities. At the same time, his larger political allegiances are indiscernible from his main rival Basescu: Ponta, too. is subservient to US interests in the region: he is in favor of fracking and shale gas exploitation by US firms and plays second fiddle to the accumulation interests of the big capital operating in Romania. Even though he presents himself as the ultimate enemy of Basescu and the only alternative to his rule, Ponta offers nothing else than “more of the same” albeit with his own repertoire of populism and nationalism.

Ponta’s main rival for the presidency is Sibiu’s mayor Klaus Johannis. Sibiu is a small Transylvanian city that was voted one of the European capitals in 2007. This brought a healthy stream of revenues to the city that the mayor was able to divert into refurbishing the old historical part of the borough, to the delight of the middle class population, which could thus recognize the city as a properly European one. While the rest of the city was left underdeveloped and its poorer inhabitants were chased away to the margins, mayor Johannis’s popularity surged. His German name and background coupled with his performance as a mayor reinforced the old stereotypes about the hardworking Central European ethnic minorities of Transylvania in contrast to the Balkan laziness of the rest. If only such a figure would become president! For some, Johannis represents the perfect solution for the Romanian problems: a German(-like) politician. He even brags about his one meeting with Angela Merkel in order to drive the message home.

A member of the Liberal Party that came to power in 2012 in coalition with the aforementioned social-democrats, Johannis was mentioned several times as possible minister or even prime-minister. In fact, Ponta’s refusal to name Johannis as vice-premier led to the dissolution of their coalition and, in the long run, to Ponta and Johannis locking horns in this electoral confrontation.

In terms of style, Johannis is indeed the complete opposite of Traian Basescu: soft-spoken and laconic, sober and direct, the mayor of Sibiu does stand in stark contrast to the stereotypical image of Romanian politicians. However, in terms of politics, he couldn’t be more similar. Proudly describing himself as right-wing, Johannis promises to do for the entire country what he did for Sibiu: that is, to cater for the needs of the middle classes at the expense of the poor by cutting unnecessary state spending and directing investment towards business and big capital. He stands for the same US interests and is also a supporter of fracking while playing second fiddle to big business interests. Sounds familiar?

In the wings of these two main contenders, who most likely are going to meet in the deciding second round scheduled for November 16, are two women candidates, both of whom owe their political careers to President Basescu. Monica Macovei, a former prosecutor and human rights lawyer was elevated to the status of Minister of Justice immediately after Traian Basescu took power in 2004. From that position she was able to implement a harsh anti-corruption agenda, which became the trademark of Basescu’s regime. However, by time the relationship between the two grew cold to the point of being acrimonious today. Nonetheless, Macovei is keen to capitalize on her image as a corruption fighter and her presidential campaign is centered on this point. The rest of her presidential program, however, seems to be a mere copy of Basescu’s presidential agenda to which she added some really aggressive libertarian rhetoric to please her small constituency of middle class corporate executives and neoconservative intellectuals.

For her, the state is the prime source of corruption and as such the fight against corruption is the fight to strip the state bare of its social functions, except, of course, its military and police responsibilities. These branches are allocated even more funds in her program. What is more, under the slogan that corruption generates poverty, her anti-corruption drive recently became –naturally – a call against the poor. The poor, the logic goes, vote for her rivals in order to keep their benefits and as such, they generate poverty for everyone by keeping the state involved and the market in its shackles. Her program is basically the best continuation of what Traian Basescu started.

However, the candidate that the president considers to be his most reliable heir is Elena Udrea, a former aid and former minister. Throughout the years, Udrea was one of the closest persons to the president and his confidante. Very loyal to him as a person, she was also in line with his politics and political vision. In her case, “more of the same” is explicit. This is her promise to the voters and largely her entire program: to continue what Traian Basescu has started, especially his fight against Victor Ponta’s Party and the business interests associated with it.

However, her main political function is not to win these elections – she has no chance to since, according to the available polls so far, her final percentage is expected to be in the single-digits. Her role is to prepare the ground for Traian Basescu’s reinsertion into party politics after the end of his mandate. Udrea is the head of the Popular Movement Party, a party formed with the blessing and help of the President not long ago. The explicit goal of the Party is to win the Parliamentary elections of 2016 with Basescu playing an active role in that, which, in the end, could see him appointed as Prime Minister. This might be a very stretched prediction, though not entirely implausible.

What is surprising in the case of Udrea’s campaign so far is that even though she brags about being the heir of Traian Basescu’s legacy—and the president presents her as such,—one can discern a palpable change of emphasis. Whereas Basescu was addressing the relatively prosperous middle classes and  corporatist workers, Udrea is appealing more and more simultaneously to the destitute pensioners and to the young lumpen population of the medium sized cities of Romania. Her discourse is more and more populist, emphasizing the need for a strong local capital and for authentic Romanian values. However, since she is too close to the President and too involved with some very rich businessmen, her explicit promise of “more of the same” is rather a bleak one for most of the voters.

Finally, one atypical actor recently gained the spotlight during this election campaign: this is the National Directorate for Anti-Corruption – a prosecuting branch in charge of big corruption cases. Recently, it indicted a series of big political names, some very close to Victor Ponta, but generally it holds no political bias as previous cases have shown. Whether these recent corruption scandals will tip the balance in favor of Ponta’s rivals (Johannis is also awaiting a verdict on an incompatibility case) remains to be seen. Until then the fact remains that these current candidates are so similar in terms of their political program, and so colorless as a result, that their main enemy seems to be the legacy of President Basescu. He remains the focal point of this campaign so far – the very embodiment of election without choice.

poenaruFlorin Poenaru is an anthropologist and co-editor of CriticAtac. He works on issues of class and post-communism.

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