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On the Verge of Democratic Consolidation: The Romanian Presidential Elections

11/07/2014 12:00:00 AM

CREDIT: Shutterstock

The first round of the Romanian presidential elections took place on Sunday, November 2, with 14 candidates vying for the votes of over 18.3 million electors formally residing in the country as well as a truly sizable yet unknown number of citizens living abroad. The run-off round with the top two candidates will be held on November 16, seeing current Prime Minister Victor-Viorel Ponta, who scored a comfortable lead, run against trailing opposition contender Klaus Werner Iohannis. The first round tally might be deceptive, with lingering questions about how the electorates of the 12 other candidates would align in the second round. Another decisive factor in this projected close race is the vote of the diaspora.

On November 2, there were protests in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bucharest, where friends of the diaspora decried the conduct of Romanian consulates across Europe.The consulates were charged with organizing polling stations abroad, yet strangely failed to secure sufficient voting ballot forms. Similar questionable administrative deficiencies occurred even in the capital, Bucharest. Social media recorded interminable lines of voters standing with their children in the cold in the sizable diaspora hubs of Munich, Berlin, Vienna, Stockholm, Brussels, Turin, Bologna, Valencia, and Dublin. This was also the case in Chisinau, capital of Moldova, where a sizable chunk of the population not only speaks Romanian but carries dual citizenship. The police were called in at protests in front of Romania's London and Paris consulates after masses of voters kept outside for hours objected loudly when they had still not been able to cast their votes at the consulates' closing time.

Despite apparent vote rigging attempts, a decade since it joined NATO and seven years since its EU accession, Romania's presidential elections are a bid for an unlikely and potentially surprising narrative of democratic consolidation. These elections will recalibrate the political spectrum in a challenging regional security environment, where rampant high-level corruption is seen as undermining state security and liberal democratic consolidation.

The Goliath Candidate

At 42 years old, favored candidate Prime Minister Ponta is the relatively young president of the Social Democratic Party (PSD). This party, dominant during much of the post-communist transition period, is a grouping best viewed as an entrenched conservative elite enriched through sweetheart deals with the state. They were reluctant reformers by default under EU and NATO accession pressures and in the absence of a coherent opposition.

Highly pragmatic, PSD remains the most capable grouping to implement reforms if allowed to reposition itself as a centrist party. PSD thrives on a dejected electorate alienated by the "iron fist" austerity package that incumbent President Traian Basescu's reformist group enacted while in government at the height of the recession which lasted from May 2010 to 2012. To what extent PSD's bureaucratic control of the levers of power and moderate centrist position rubs off on Ponta as presidential candidate remains to be decided in this second presidential round.

Western capitals are closely monitoring the situation. In neighboring Hungary, in a move to warn Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's government of the dangers of continuing policies that undermine democratic values and hinting at the type of measures applied to democracy challengers within Russia, the U.S. government instituted travel ban restrictions on Hungarian officials on October 20. This precedent, on the grounds that corruption hurts security interests within the NATO alliance, is telling. However, Viktor Orbán's maneuvers towards an "illiberal state" in Hungary approximating Russian, Chinese, and Turkish models would not suit Victor Ponta's government, for which isolation spells political suicide. Behavior during the first round of elections was primarily a response to calculations made after Ponta's recent visits to Romanian communities abroad, where he was repeatedly booed.

Ponta sidelined moderates within PSD, opting for an antagonistic relationship with the pro-reformist President Basescu's faction and with civil society political groups focused on fighting corruption. Having alienated more liberal factions cultivated by his moderate PSD predecessor Mircea Geoana, Ponta doesn't have the option of employing populist nationalist rhetoric as a re-election tool, especially since his coalition government enjoys the backing of the Democratic Union for Hungarians in Romania, which represents Romania's ethnic Hungarian minority. The popular anti-Basescu rhetoric which helped Ponta's ascent won't work in these elections, as the president is no longer a contender and the candidate of his reformist faction is not Ponta's main opponent.

One threat to Ponta's presidential bid is his susceptibility to character attacks. These include allegations of plagiarisms in his doctoral thesis and most recently a scandal in which President Basescu insinuated that Ponta's political ascendance had been boosted by his service as a secret agent, something he has not admitted to, and which implies incompatibility with public office.

Ponta is seen as the protégé of former PSD leader and former prime minister Adrian Nastase, who had been indicted in several corruption cases and who served a prison sentence after being convicted of corruption in 2012. Ponta has done little to distance himself from Nastase and other alleged affiliations with individuals whose names adorn the lists of high-profile corruption investigation cases. Ponta's potentially obstructing role as president in future anti-corruption proceedings completes a strikingly non-reconciliatory profile for a PSD candidate. In the past, the party usually pragmatically banked on an electorate which traditionally votes for paternalistic moderate figures that convey an image of stability.

The Slingshot Candidate

The most exciting dark horse presidential candidate favored for the second round is the incumbent mayor of Sibiu, Klaus Werner Iohannis, who rose to prominence mainly as an independent via the electorally insignificant ethnic minority party of the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania, a provincial grouping. Only in 2013 did he accept membership as vice-president in the mainstream National Liberal Party (PNL).

A German-speaking Saxon in the ethnically diverse tinderbox province of Transylvania and a member of a minor Lutheran church in a Christian Orthodox dominant nation, this provincial physics teacher brought about the most improbable political ascent in post-communist Romania. His repeated mayoral landslide victories in the last decade showcased the limits of nationalist discourse and the ability of a discerning electorate to judge based on consistency in governing performance.

As mayor, Iohannis succeeded in turning Sibiu into an investment hub and a top tourist destination, successfully bidding for Sibiu to be the European Capital of Culture in 2007. In 2009, all parliamentary groups except President Basescu's Democrat Liberal Party (PDL) proposed Iohannis as Prime Minister nominee, forcing the president's refusal and subsequent unsuccessful attempts to nominate alternative candidates. Betrayed by all coalition reformists PDL was left alone to face the electoral backlash against austerity measures while all others opted for a unity government option. Cast into Romania's political maelstrom as the unity government candidate, Iohannis succeeded in remaining detached and preserving his steadfast incorruptible image.

Prospects for an Anti-corruption Reformist Coalition

Repeating missteps familiar from the 1990's and the history of botched experiments in civil society coalition building, the various reformist camp political groups and civil society players have been positioning themselves in this election with independent candidates. So far this served to detract from Iohannis' potential electoral base in the first round, undermining his chances and theirs in defeating Ponta.

One such civil society independent candidate is the former justice minister Monica Macovei, currently a member of the European Parliament. Her sustained efforts consolidated the independence of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), an institution which produced commendable progress in investigating and prosecuting large-scale corruption cases, often involving high level officials.

Macovei, like Basescu, remains defined as a polarizing reformist figure, not a coalition builder. Presidential candidate Elena Udrea, the leader of the People's Movement Party (PMP) backed by Basescu, often undermines Macovei, a self-defeating strategy since both seek Ponta's removal from the race and eventually from government. If Macovei's true ambition is to consolidate the cause of anti-corruption she would best serve it by backing Iohannis for president and alternatively as prime minister, joining a coalition that would protect DNA from political pressures. This coalition would benefit from reconciliation between the PNL and PMP, but bearing in mind the recent history of betrayal, this is a very difficult bridge to cross.

Other current independent presidential candidates would be more pliable towards a PNL-led coalition under Iohannis. The ethnic Hungarian minority party currently in Ponta's government has a long tradition of landing in governing coalitions that maximize the interests of its core electorate. It should have no qualms about supporting a PNL-led coalition under a Transylvanian Saxon minority leader.

Prime Minister Ponta's government, whose term ends in 2016, would be vulnerable inside PSD if presidential elections are lost and many "flexible" politicians could see the benefits of distancing themselves from this PSD leader.

Governance Stability Prospects for a Rising Euro-Atlantic Ally

No matter which of the two accede to the presidency, the country will remain stable and despite warranted fears it is unlikely to reverse commendable progress in the institutional consolidation of its independent justice system. This is precisely because the entire Romanian political elite stands to lose if isolated militarily and economically in a volatile neighborhood where the territorial sovereignty of states is still being challenged.

Romania is unable to independently defend even its sovereign airspace. It borders on Ukraine, which is in crisis, as well as sister nation Moldova, which remains pregnant with the 14th Russian army permanently stationed in its separatist region of Transnistria. In this environment Romania does not have the luxury of allowing itself an authoritarian illiberal streak in leadership for fear of isolation.

In an address in Bucharest on May 21, Vice President Joe Biden allayed security fears by reasserting the United States' ironclad commitment to collective defense under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty; but this was almost an afterthought to his insistence that Romania consolidate its democratic institutions to fight corruption. He argued that corruption represents "a clear and present danger not only to a nation's economy, but to its very national security," and alluded to Russia exploiting this weakness in Ukraine, "to exercise malign influence and undermine the very sovereignty and independence of their neighbors." Essentially, VP Biden highlighted the conditionality of NATO's security umbrella as based on members' shared values and equated the country's anti-corruption efforts with defense of national sovereignty. Russian aerial harassment in April of a U.S. navy ship on its way to Romania's coast was apparently not worth mentioning in that speech. Instead the speech highlighted the real struggle as one of consolidating democratic institutions to defend against endemic high-level corruption and against outside manipulation of courts and media.

With Russia testing Western resoluteness in defending liberal democratic values and with Turkey in a perennial search for identity within the NATO security alliance, Romania is rising as a needed stability outpost for the United States and the EU. Centrist Romanian elites, if capable to deliver stability and further anti-corruption efforts, would stand to win international recognition as regional models in this geostrategic hotspot.

However, picking up the Euro-Atlantic mantle of outgoing president Basescu is not a straightforward task. Romanian foreign diplomatic efforts, while not as incisive or antagonistic as Poland's, have warned EU and NATO allies against their wavering responses to Putin's attempts to test their resoluteness. Early on, Basescu articulated the dangers of Russian tactical moves in limiting Europe's gas and oil supply options and became a voice for Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration. In 2005, his administration signed an accord allowing the installation of U.S. military bases on Romania's Black Sea coastline and consistently followed through, contributing military deployments to all NATO allied missions. Basescu and governments led by his political faction built credibility steering the country through one of its worst recessions, but not surprisingly, their "iron fist" austerity measures have met with bad electoral results.

Basescu's presidency was marked by political polarization, but he reshaped nationalism discourse historically centered on fears concerning Transylvania. He did so by focusing on foreign support for the eventual integration of neighboring Moldova and its Romanian-speaking population in a common European home. This shift of focus saw a marked departure from the perennial use of populist nationalist discourse characteristic of weak administrations facing economic challenges. This is not a minor feat. White-hot nationalists' feelings with regards to Transylvania have been the favorite tool of governance in Romania, and a reflex for all pragmatic politicians irrespective of ideology.

Iohannis' election would afford the entire Romanian political class a rare legitimate narrative of a democratic country firmly rooted in a culture of tolerance towards minorities and one seeking to define itself as a liberal democracy. His conciliatory position would allow a depolarization of the political spectrum and the formation of a solid governing coalition. If re-elected, Ponta would prolong the polarization of the political spectrum with the PSD-led governing coalition likely to lose steam, thus forcing the alignment of current reformists into an anti-PSD coalition. Iohannis would become the likely contender as prime minister of a coalition, something most parties would agree to. Presuming Ponta's weakness inside the PSD should he lose, the party might shift back to the center, making it a potential stability factor.

Nuances of Opportunity in Either Electoral Outcome

These contrasting moderate vs. radical, conciliatory vs. polarizing profiles of the top candidates should not be read as a black or white outcome in terms of the country's democratic consolidation but rather as an insight into expectations of qualitatively different parameters of what is achievable.

Romania will remain a stable European democracy with a representative multiparty political system if either Ponta or Johannis become president. Just as there are doubts about Ponta's allegedly obstructionist potential there are doubts about the efficiency of an uncomfortable coalition of coalitions forming among the various vociferous pro-reformers. There is an interesting, distinct possibility that PSD as a party would revert to a more moderate centrist leadership and become a coalition builder with or without Ponta's election as president. Many high-ranking PSD party members have worked hard over the last few decades to obtain Western recognition and integrate the country in trans-Atlantic security structures, both to ensure the country's stability and their own relevance as the default moderate elite. It would be uncharacteristic for PSD to permit a Ponta presidency that could alienate Western capitals. Even if elected, Ponta would have to shift into a difficult but necessary reconciling moderate role.

Either outcome should not detract from the rise to prominence of a consensus-building, German-speaking, ethnic minority presidential candidate in a Central European country. Students of nationalism and East-Central European history ought to take note, as should neighboring countries playing with the dangerous flames of nationalism.

Romania, despite resting on weak state institutions, has so far defied predictions of disintegration along ethnic lines. Instead, it is offering a narrative of bridging perceived fault-lines in European civilizational tectonics. A decade after joining NATO, it is firmly implanting itself as a reliable security ally and, irrespective of the final electoral tally, the country will continue to consolidate state institutions with EU and U.S. support. Indeed, it offers a remarkably resilient alternative liberal model for the Wider Black Sea region.

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