Monday, December 14, 2009

Romanian recount shows limited mandate for President Basescu’s second term
7:52 PM ET

Lavinia Stan [Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, St. Francis Xavier University]: “On 14 December, the Central Electoral Bureau reinstated 2,000 of the 138,000 invalid votes registered in the second round of the presidential elections that took place a week before. The recounting was ordered by the Romanian Constitutional Court at the request of the Social Democrat Party candidate Mircea Geoana, who lost the poll to incumbent Traian Basescu, representing the Democrat-Liberal Party. With that announcement, Geoana’s hopes of seeing the final score reversed vanished into thin air, as most of the newly validated votes went to his rival.

The recount was the final scene of the first presidential poll organized after Romania was reluctantly and belatedly accepted into the European Union in 2007. This was also the first time when presidential elections were held separately from parliamentary elections, as the President’s mandate was extended to five years, as opposed to four years for members of Parliament. For the first time in the history of this post-communist country, which remains a laggard in Europe and the European Union with respect to democratic consolidation, more electors voted in the second, as opposed to the first, round (54% as opposed to 58%). Finally, this was the first time when the winner was decided by a mere 70,000 votes, most of them believed to be those of the increasingly large Romanian diapora. The country has a total population of some 21 million.

For Basescu and his Democrat-Liberals, this is an important victory. First, because they feared that a victorious Geoana might adopt a practice instituted by Basescu since 2004: that of refusing to accept cabinet formulas excluding his party. The practice, which Basescu hails as a prerogative of the Player-President he wants to be, runs counter to Article 84 of the Constitution, which calls on the President to be above party politics and represent all Romanians, regardless of their ideological or policy preferences. While the Democrat-Liberals and the Social Democrats have formed the government in 2008-2009, their relations sharply deteriorated in the wake of the presidential poll. Thus, it was unlikely that President Geoana would have allowed the Democrat-Liberals to participate in the new government. Second, the victory allows Basescu to reform the political system and move the country closer to presidentialism (and away from French-style semi-presidentialism), a proposal surprisingly embraced by some of the country’s intellectuals. While capitalizing on Parliament’s dismal public trust and justifying presidentialism as key to unblocking the anticorruption campaign and reducing the political influence of the oligarchs, supporters of Basescu’s constitutional amendments have downplayed the pitfalls of a system with which Romania historically had no experience and which displays uncanny similarities to Ceausescu’s strong-man rule. Indeed, if these proposals had originated from the Social Democrat camp, intellectuals would have quickly dismissed them, and rightly so. In a country with feable civic spirit and limited democratic past, granting the President such wide prerogatives might spell the end of democratization.

Basescu’s victory is bitter-sweet because for the first time his ideological and policy inconsistencies might prevent the Democrat-Liberals to form the government. To the dismay of Western observers, after its acceptance into the European Union the country descended into political haos, rather than gloriously converging with the democratic older member states. During his first mandate, President Basescu single-mindedly sought to ensure parliamentary majority to his Democrat-Liberals at the risk of alienating all other political formations, and endangering the reform agenda. In 2005 and again in 2009 the governments he appointed enjoyed a significant parliamentary majority, but Basescu pursued an office-seeking, rather than a policy-seeking agenda. Since the October 2009 fall of the Democrat-Liberal and Social Democrat government, Romania has remained ungoverned, and Basescu’s chances to form anything other than a minority cabinet are very slim, as his Democrat-Liberals remain isolated. It is unlikely that President Basescu will be able to strengthen the rule of law, launch the anti-corruption campaign, deblock de-communization, and boost Romania’s international credibility during his second mandate.”

Also available at: