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December 14, 2004

LETTER FROM ROMANIA--THE MEANING OF SUNDAY'S ELECTIONS

I thought that, in view of Sunday's presidential election in Romania, I'd ask a recent Romanian immigrant--my admirable friend Adrian Coman--to give us his thoughts about them.

Adrian was a staffer for Romania's leading human rights organization (the Romanian Helsinki Committee), and later became executive director of the Romanian gay rights group ACCEPT. Adrian continued his valiant struggle for gay rights, right until Romania finally repealed its laws making same-sex love a crime--but only after pressure from members of the European parliament, who threatened to block Romania's entry into the European Union if the country didn't erase those anti-gay laws. Adrian now works in New York for the Baltic-American Partnership Fund, a funding agency sponsoring projects in the Baltic countries, which was created by George Soros and U.S. AID.

One aspect of the Romanian regime-in-power's attempt to keep hold of government was its deploying of political homophobia against the opposition candidate for president, which made it even more obvious that Adrian was the right person to analyze the Romanian election.

Adrian Coman just returned two weeks ago from Romania. Here, then -- exclusively for DIRELAND -- is his first-hand report:

A Chance for Reform in Romania

The results of the presidential run-off announced today, December 13, 2004 – in my opinion – bring hope to Romania. Traian Basescu, mayor of Bucharest and candidate of opposition’s alliance (DA), won by a small margin against Adrian Nastase, current prime minister, candidate of the ruling Social Democrat Party (PSD).

Let’s first have a look at the political base of the two and the current shape of the parliamentary groups, as they resulted from the parliamentary elections of November 28, 2004. Then let me say what I expect from a Basescu-led Romania.

Romania’s ruling politicians departed from the Communist past only during 1996-2000 when a center-right alliance, the Democratic Convention, was in power. Unfortunately, the Convention disappointed the electorate with their inability to implement reforms and to manage internal disputes. The National Liberal Party (PNL), and the Democratic Party (PD) – currently forming the DA Alliance, at the time were part of the Convention. During 1990–1996 and 2000 to present, a self-styled "left-leaning" regime, under the patronage of President Ion Iliescu, has ruled the country. Today it takes the form of PSD, on behalf of which Adrian Nastase ran for presidency with the blessing of Ion Iliescu-- who has well exhausted the number of times he could run for presidency himself according to the Constitution. All these years, PSD managed to appeal to the masses by slow reforms and a paternalistic approach, emphasizing the need to consolidate the state and let the past remain unknown on issues such as who collaborated with Ceausescu’s Securitate. Romania seemed not to be able to do away with Ion Iliescu--he will continue to play a major role from his recently secured Parliament seat, most probably, also, as a come-back leader of PSD.

In the legislative elections, held November 28, 2004, neither PSD, nor the DA alliance won a majority in parliament. One of them will have to form an alliance with at least two of the three other parties that made it to the Parliament: The Humanist Party (PUR), the ultra-nationalist Greater Romania (PRM), and the ethnic Hungarians’ Union (UDMR). The former two supported Adrian Nastase in the run-off. The latter boycotted the run-off and encouraged their supporters not to go to the polls. In reality, Basescu won with votes from the three parties’ supporters, particularly those of the Greater Romania. Although The Humanist Party made it to the parliament in electoral alliance with PSD, and the Hungarian’s Union said – before the run-off – that they will support PSD, Basescu has now asked them to form a parliamentary majority with the DA alliance. I predict that both will desert PSD and join the alliance. Anyway, whoever forms the majority, and therefore the government, will face a stiff opposition in parliament. Some already speak about anticipated elections.

It may be interesting to point out that Basescu’s party, at the time led by another 1989 Revolution figure – Petre Roman – actually split from Iliescu and Nastase’s PSD. This gets to an interesting aspect of the recent elections: both Nastase and Basescu--one in power, the other in opposition-- claim to be social democrats (and both parties are full members of the Socialist International). This is one argument to show that political labels in Romania are not necessarily anchored in distinct political programs. Although the sophisticated Western press refers to Basescu as of the "center-right," electors still vote for personalities rather than for "liberals" [in the European sense of the term, meaning free-market advocates--D.I.], social-democrats or what have you, particularly since many politicians migrated from one party to another. Parties are little shaped by political doctrines, tending to be populist in their proposed programs. They all seek the support of the majority’s Orthodox Church, and their leaders can be seen crossing themselves in churches; they all support social assistance with government funding, are for European Union (EU) membership, etc. They do differ on some accounts – at doctrinal level – such as on the respect for private property, something that has never appealed to Ion Iliescu whose governments, prompted by the European Court of Human Rights, have had to pay significant amounts from taxpayers’ funds to compensate former owners deprived of their properties in Ceausescu’s time, to whom the new regime has not granted restitution.

Another difference may be that Ion Iliescu and his party have never departed from the structures and practices of the Communist regime. During the only TV show held before the presidential run-off with the two candidates, Basescu told Nastase that the Romanian people are cursed to have to choose between two former communists, although specifying that he has departed from the communist mentality, while Nastase has not. Late at night in the election day, Basescu’s supporters gathered in the famous University Square of Bucharest and shouted the same message as 15 years ago: "Down with the communism."

But what can Romania expect from President Basescu and, I hope, a DA alliance-led government? Basescu spoke about freeing the public institutions, the media, and civil society from political influence, about implementing the reforms required as a precondition for membership by the EU and explaining them to the populace. He promised to lead the fight against corruption, and consolidate a strategic alliance in foreign affairs with the US, UK, and the EU, also improving relations with the neighboring Republic of Moldova, Ukraine, and further, with Russia.

I think, generally, civic rights and liberties, as well as the media will have something to gain, as Basescu himself faced a controlled media, and was supported by an alliance of civil society organizations that tried to expose publicly the corruption and lack of values in Romanian politics. The rule of law is one pending issue highlighted in the EU evaluation of Romania’s progress towards admission to membership. Basescu has no reason to backslide in this area. He himself, and the DA alliance, were the victims of politicized public institutions in the election process. He claimed there was fraud, and I believe him. I was in Romania on November 28, and was told how easily it was to take off the "voted" sticker applied to one’s plasticized ID card, and go vote in another electoral circumscription on the notorious "supplementary" lists. In many cases, busses were arranged by PSD for this "electoral tourism," as it was called. Another manipulation technique they used was to falsify millions of leaflets of a civil society coalition that tried to expose the candidates from all parties who did not observe basic principles, such as conflict of interest, collaboration with Ceausescu’s Securitate or political party migration. Basescu was the only party leader who adopted those principles to purge some of the initial candidates of his party.

As for sensitive issues, Basescu seems not afraid to face them. Less than a month ago, during the election campaign, he stated that he does not oppose same-sex marriages, attracting political fire from the PSD--and then prompting the most known gay rights organization in the country, ACCEPT, to ask publicly not to use hatred and Romanians’ anti-gay feelings for political capital. I briefly met Basescu a few years ago and I do not think he is pro gay. However, he seems to understand the rapid development of gay rights, particularly in the context of the EU enlargement, and he is politically mature enough not to block it. Basescu is certainly not a saint, and the coalition he will gather around him will have to make many compromises. However, I think Basescu will avoid making PSD’s mistakes, such as maintaining the corrupt in power and counting on an easy manipulation of Romanians.

I am not knowledgeable enough to comment on Romania’s needed economic reforms. However, I will say that the same economic reforms seemed to have been on the agenda of all political parties and governments so far. The difference consisted of how seriously they were implemented, and how much derogation from the rule was granted along the way; PSD was notorious for the latter, as a means to buy political capital. Currently, Romanians have ¼ of the EU average standard of living. Nobody can raise it overnight, but I hope Basescu will oversee a system in which corruption will diminish, and reforms will be approached according to a vision and in a rational way.

It is not going to be easy, but for the first time Romania has a president who seems to be honest, does not have a past to cover up and who offers a chance to reshape politics on the basis of values and principles – the thing we missed most in the past 15 years in Romanian political life.

To keep up with Romanian news you can visit www.pressreview.ro 

--ADRIAN COMAN

P.S. After I saw a wildly optimistic and ill-informed clip this morning from U.K. Gay News claiming that President-elect Basescu had been on the stump for gay rights, I asked Adrian for his comment. He replied: "It is not true that Basescu campaigned pro-gay rights--ever."

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Comments

The President is elected in a two round system for a five years term. If one candidate obtains a majority of 50%+1 of all registered voters in the first round, he or she is declared the winner. If none of the candidates achieve this, then a run-off is held between the two contenders with the top scores in the first round. The candidate who obtains any majority of votes in the run-off is declared the winner.

The term of the president is five years. Between 1992 and 2004 the term was of four years, but was increased following the 2003 Constitutional referendum. One person can serve a maximum of two terms, that may be consecutive.

In order to be able to run for the Office of President a candidate must fulfill the following conditions: be born a Romanian citizen, be at least 40 years of age (at least on the day of the election), and not have held the office for two terms since 1992, when the 1991 Constitution took effect.

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