On 6 December, the incumbent Romanian President Traian Basescu, representing the Democrat-Liberal Party, won the second round of presidential elections against Mircea Geoana, leader of the Social Democrat Party. For the first time in the history of post-communist Romania, which remains a laggard in Europe and the European Union with respect to effecting democratic and market reforms, more Romanians voted in the second, as opposed to the first, round. This was also the first time when presidential elections were organized apart from parliamentary elections, as the President’s mandate was extended to five years, and the first time Romanians had to elect their President after the country was reluctantly and belatedly accepted into the European Union in 2007. Also for the first time the difference between the two candidates was so small (70,000 votes) that only the most daring or self-deceiving political analysts (the country’s most abundant supply) could claim that they accurately predicted the outcome. The final result was so unexpected that for close to 12 hours each candidate claimed victory, without being able to prove his own claim and disprove his rival’s. But the power of conviction was greater for Geoana than Basescu, as the elated optimism of the former contrasted with the defeatist glance of the latter. Busy counting and recounting the ballots, the Central Electoral Bureau maintained a creepy silence during the night of 6/7 December, offering no real information beyond voter turnout. While the Bureau kept stubbornly silent with regard to the results of the vote, different opinion poll companies and the two political formations behind the candidates competed in proposing exit polls as definitive results. Each party supported its candidate’s claim to the Presidential office. Of four major exit pollers, three declared Geoana the winner, and only one sided with Basescu. Given the close count (50.33% for Basescu and 49.66% for Geoana), it’s no wonder that a majority of Romanian pollers bet on what turned out to be the loser.

The truth is that most Romanians were dissatisfied with both candidates, and over 100,000 of voters chose to invalidate their ballots. The final result, and consequently Basescu’s victory, reflects not so much his more persuasive arguments, concrete proposals, untainted reputation, rejection of nepotism, or willingness to address the country’s most urgent problems, but rather the fact that many voters considered him the best of two (burdensome) evils and many more took the trouble to wake up in the morning and do what they never did during the last decade – vote. The result could have been completely different if, instead of the 150,000 Romanian emigrants spread across the globe who impatiently assaulted Romanian embassies and consulates, peasants living in rural Moldova or Oltenia had put their knives and alambic down on that fatidical Sunday and chose to postpone their traditional early winter occupations: slaughtering the family pig, and brewing the all-present plum brandy. Indeed, the mood that followed the announcement of Basescu’s victory was far from festive, with many of his own declared supporters acknowledging that Basescu is no “usa de biserica” (pure at heart, morally vertical) and wondering what benefits the victory will really bring to the ordinary Romanian. More worrisome was the fact that even Basescu seemed to be taken by surprise by his victory.

The 2009 presidential elections were less European and more Latin American in nature and format. They were less about valor, honor and concrete proposals and more about populist programs, fabricated evidence, false charges, personal attacks, and unfeasible proposals. After the usual skirmishes that characterize everything political in Bucharest, in the first round the three top candidates – the Liberal Crin Antonescu, Basescu and Geoana – participated into a televised debate, whereas just before the second round the remaining contenders Basescu and Geoana locked horns again to show the nation their worth. But the real battle was taking place in the streets, where Basescu’s supporters beat up Antonescu’s men; in the chat-rooms and on the internet, where special teams took over internet sites, newspaper pages, blog entries, and any thread of decent discussion to blacken the rival and promote their favored candidate; in the politically-co-opted and investigative-feable Romanian mass-media outlets, where accusations and counter-accusations were launched; among the country’s pittiful “moguls” and “oligarchs” who openly or discreetly tried to decide the outcome of the poll; and among the country’s intellectuals, who supported the candidates under the guise of political neutrality.

The debate acquired surreal connotations when the Social Democrats unearthed an older video recording allegedly showing Basescu as a child molester. True, Basescu is known as a person whose vulgarity can reach unfathomable hights, a misanthropic racist who unhesitanly called a female journalist a “stinking Gypsy,” but this coarse political pirate has shown real moments of tenderness toward his wife and children. In short, it is very unlikely that he knowingly hit a child, even somebody else’s. But the pro-Basescu camp descended into ridicule when respected intellectual and political analyst-cum-physicist Horia Roman Patapievici declared that the incumbent President was an honest and well-meaning politician because he refused to take advantage of and disseminate during the electoral battle a video tape showing Geoana receiving oral sex. It’s unclear why such a recording could have damaged the Social Democrat’s leader reputation. All American things being coveted in Bucharest, an act that would have brought Geoana, Romania’s former Ambassador to Washington, DC, closer to the cocky Bill Clinton of the famed Lewinsky era might have helped him score a victory. Rather, the assertion suggests a misplaced and unnecessarily puritanical preoccupation with the bedroom, twenty years after the country moved away from a political dictatorship obsessed with sexuality and reproduction.

By voting Basescu, Romanians might have narrowly averted the complete control over the Presidential office of the oligarchs, which, in the mind of the pro-Basescu camp, populate only the self-interested world of Antonescu and Geoana. This is important because after 2000 Romanian politics has approximated a zero-sum game in which the winner takes all. During the 1990s the President appointed governments including the political formation that won a plurality of the vote. But during the last decade the rule was no longer followed, partly because the 2003 constitutional amendments allowed it. As such, the latest presidential elections are less a victory for Basescu, and more a victory for his Democrat-Liberals, who now know that they will be part of any government formula accepted by the President. Or will they? Isolated and distrusted by other political parties, which might be completely co-opted by the oligarchs but still represent a substantial percentage of the Romanian electorate, the Democrat-Liberals have burnt bridges and proven unable to propose a viable cabinet to date. While quick to criticize the Liberals, and rightly so, for appointing incompetent, interested and obscure figures as ministers, and to demonize the Social Democrats for their close ties to the moguls and unwillingness to promote anti-corruption and de-communization, the Democrat Liberals were silent when appointing the blonde bomb-shell Elena Udrea as Minister of Tourism, a domain in which her family has important business interests, or when agreeing to form a government with the Social Democrats in 2008. These ideological and policy pirouettes have bought Basescu time and the 2009 presidential victory, but have almost completely delegitimized transitional justice and governmental performance. It remains to be seen if the new old Player-President, who wants to turn the country into a fully presidential republic, will be able to accomplish in the next five years what he was unable to do in his first mandate.