The 2012 elections confirmed the advantage of the Social Liberal Union (USL) over the Right Romania Alliance (ARD), established the Popular Party of Dan Diaconescu (PPDD) as the country’s third major political formation, and prolonged the cohabitation of the center-left USL cabinet and the center-right President Traian Basescu, the eminence grise of the Democrat Liberal Party (PDL), the ARD’s main partner. These elections marked the end of the busiest year in the history of post-communist Romania, when the country was shaken by street protests in January, cabinet changes in February and April, local elections in June, the suspension and return by referendum of President Basescu in July and August, as well as several political scandals that polarized the electorate, delegitimized key institutions such as parliament, fuelled political instability, destabilized the national currency, and negatively affected Romania’s European Union standing. The election results showed the incapacity of the mixed-member PR system to make the political elite more responsible and accountable to the electorate, as it was hoped when the system was first introduced in 2008 (Stan and Vancea, 2009).
After October 2009 the center-right PDL governed together with the Democratic Union of Magyars (UDMR), which represented the Hungarian ethnic minority, and the National Union for the Progress of Romania (UNPR), which gathered defectors from the Social Democrat Party (PSD). The 18 ethnic minority deputies allowed the PDL Prime Minister Emil Boc to enjoy the support of a slim parliamentary majority. Boc’s popularity dramatically decreased after his cabinet introduced austerity measures that reduced the wages and benefits of civil servants; misallocated public funds to superfluous projects while closing down hospitals and schools; failed to consult with the civil society and labor unions; introduced legislative changes to reduce the input of labor unions in collective bargaining; unilaterally changed local government spending and transfers; frequently by-passed parliament by issuing emergency ordinances and assuming responsibility for laws; widely purged civil servants belonging to other parties; protected corrupt leaders; and promoted Basescu’s relatives, clients, and friends to top state positions (Stan and Zaharia, 2011; Stefan and Ionita 2012). At the same time, President Basescu tightened control over executive decision-making, making Boc look like a puppet prime minister and tilting Romania towards a presidential system not enshrined in the constitution.
In February 2012 a new PDL government was appointed in response to street protests, but in April that cabinet had to step down after losing the confidence of parliament. At that point, the ruling PDL joined the opposition, thus allowing the opposition USL to nominate Victor Ponta as prime minister of a cabinet composed of PSD, National Liberal Party (PNL), and Conservative Party (PC) ministers. This alternation in power inaugurated a difficult cohabitation that led to political deadlock, and incessant wrangling between the cabinet and the president. The USL and the PDL were further polarized when the USL-controlled parliamentary majority suspended President Basescu, and he was reinstated following a national referendum held on 29 July 2012, in which over 7.4 million citizens voted against him. While that was more than the votes Basescu gathered in the second round of the presidential elections of 2009, the referendum was declared invalid because turnout did not reach 50 percent plus one of all registered voters, as the European Union officials demanded. In June 2012, the PDL unveiled that Prime Minister Ponta had plagiarized his doctoral thesis in law, thus irremediably damaging his international reputation, and insisted that top USL leaders practiced cronyism and clientelism. In response, the USL suspended President Basescu. By the time the parliamentary election campaign started on 9 November, trust between the two main electoral blocks was at an all time low.
Parties envisaged the formation of electoral blocs able to capture a plurality of the votes well before the start of the campaign. In 2011 the PDL set out to repackage itself as part of a new electoral alliance, a rebranding effort financed to collect more than the 15 percent of the vote with which opinion polls credited it. Because of Basescu’s suspension, however, it was only in September 2012 that the ARD registered as a bloc consisting of the PDL and two tiny out-of parliament formations: the National Christian-Democrat Peasant Party (PNTCD), led by Aurelian Pavelescu, and the Civic Force Party (PFC), led by Mihai Razvan Ungureanu (prime minister in February-April 2012). The New Republic Party, although officially unregistered, joined in, and its leader, theologian Mihail Neamtu, became an ARD co-president, together with Vasile Blaga (the PDL leader), Ungureanu, and Pavelescu. The Alliance further counted on the support of the Christian-Democrat Foundation, led by theologian Teodor Baconschi (a PDL minister of foreign affairs in December 2009-January 2012), and on the Center-Right Civic Initiative, founded by Ungureanu and a number of prominent PDL leaders.
The Alliance ran into serious problems from the start. First, opinion polls showed that the ARD could bring to the PDL only 3 percent more votes than what the party would gain if running alone, thus calling into question the entire rebranding effort. Second, other Christian-Democrats contested Pavelescu’s leadership of the PNTCD, pointed out that he had frequently changed parties (he joined the PNL, the National Right Party, the Democrat Party, and the New Initiative Party before becoming a PNTCD member), and showed that his claim to represent the PNTCD was at best disingenuous and at worst fraudulent. Third, the ARD leadership included only male co-presidents and placed the leader of ARD’s driving force (Blaga of the PDL) on equal footing with the leaders of three parties whose electoral following was negligible. This allocation of top positions meant that Blaga could find himself in minority, although his party mustered five times more votes than all the junior partners put together. Fourth, Neamtu’s ill-advised decision to recite a poem written by Radu Gyr, a leader of the inter-war fascist Iron Guard and a notorious anti-Semite, at the official launch of the ARD candidates forced other Alliance leaders to publicly distance themselves from him, determined the Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism to denounce the theologian, and prompted many political analysts to question Neamtu’s very commitment to the liberal democratic values that the ARD claimed to defend. More importantly, Ungureanu, Neamtu and Blaga actively helped Basescu to canvas the country before the referendum and, as a result, the ARD became intrinsically tied to a president perceived as a political liability more than a guarantor of stability. Opinion polls suggested that in November Basescu’s popularity was lower than the ARD’s, barely reaching 15 percent.
At the same time, other formations made efforts to provide alternatives to the rule of the PDL and President Basescu. By October 2009, the PDL had alienated both the PNL, an inter-war ‘historical party’ revived in 1989, and the PSD, heir to the once hegemonic Communist Party that had persecuted the PNL during 1945-1989. The PNL was dissatisfied that, after it formed the cabinet with the PDL following the 2004 parliamentary elections, the PDL withdrew support from the government, joined the opposition, and became the PNL’s most vocal and unforgiving critic. The PSD in turn blamed the PDL for refusing in October 2009 to dissolve the cabinet they formed together after the 2008 elections. Their opposition to President Basescu and the PDL convinced the PSD and the PNL to come together, in spite of their well-known ideological and historical differences. On 5 February 2011, the PSD and the PNL set up the USL together with the Conservative Party (PC) of Dan Voiculescu, a wealthy businessman tied to the former communist secret political police, the Securitate. The USL formed the cabinet in May 2012 and won the local elections in June, thus emerging as an adversary to be reckoned with. In August it welcomed back within its fold the UNPR, further consolidating its advantage over the ARD.
To gain an electoral ascendancy over the USL, the ARD appointed an Ethics Commission to vet its candidates according to a number of integrity criteria. Opinion polls have repeatedly suggested that Romanians want a renewed political elite that would place national interests above personal and group interests, and would be free from politicians engaged in cronyism, nepotism, and clientelism. Corruption levels remain high among Romanian politicians and transcend party lines, but different parties have approached this problem differently. For example, while the PSD has insisted that all politicians should be considered innocent until proven guilty by the a court of law as a result of definitive and irrevocable decisions, the ARD adopted different integrity criteria to vet their electoral candidates.
The five-member ARD Commission, formed of representatives of the PDL, the PNTCD, the PFC, and the New Republic, evaluated 394 of the 452 ARD candidates (that is, 87 percent). A candidate was declared undesirable with a simple majority of the vote based on twelve integrity criteria that targeted individuals found guilty by the courts or arrested; suspected of participation in corruption, fraud, organized crime, or conflict of interests; labeled as former Securitate agents or communist leaders by the courts; or involved in racist and xenophobic actions. Also banned were politicians who had migrated between ARD member parties or between other parties. Overall, the vetting failed to significantly improve the credentials of the ARD candidates. First, the criteria were worded in such a way as to affect very few individuals. For instance, politicians were disqualified only if they migrated “during the last five years,” not during their entire career like Pavelescu, or they initiated/participated in anti-Semitic “actions,” but not discourse/writing as Neamtu did when he published openly pro-Iron Guard articles in the neo-fascist Puncte Cardinale journal in 1995. Second, the Commission failed to vet politicians such as Alin Trasculescu, a PDL deputy indicted for corruption after the Commission declared him desirable and fit to run in the 2012 elections. Third, 23 of the 36 candidates rejected by the Commission (that is, as much as 64 percent) were reinstated through a “political decision” of Blaga, Pavelescu and Ungureanu that was never fully justified for the benefit of the general public.
As no other party introduced integrity criteria and the ARD registered disappointing results in its vetting efforts, many politicians who sought election had spotted records that made them unsuitable to represent the voters. Among the 2,457 registered candidates there were only 12 independent candidates and 320 women (accounting for 0.5 and 13 percent of all candidates, respectively). Some 78 percent of ARD candidates never held a seat in parliament, compared to 57 percent of the USL candidates. Most new candidates were businessmen (USL) or civil servants (ARD). Around 78 percent of the USL candidates were legislators in 2008-2012. Most of the legislators of 2008-2012 sought reelection, even those with record number of absences, no meaningful legislative activity, declared incompatible by courts, or indicted for corruption (Institutul pentru Politici Publice, 2012). The candidates submitted wealth and interest declarations to the National Integrity Agency, which published them on the Internet (at http://declaratii.integritate.eu/home/navigare/alegeri-2012.aspx). By 5 November the Alliance for a Clean Romania, an independent civil society initiative, identified 664 candidates who failed to fulfill the integrity requirements. Of those, 334 represented the USL, 235 the ARD, 60 the PPDD, and 29 the UDMR (http://verificaintegritatea.romaniacurata.ro).
Eight other formations ran in elections, but only the PPDD and the UDMR had 452 candidates each (equal to the number fielded by the USL and the ARD and the number of electoral colleges). The drive to submit electoral lists with the maximum number of candidates stemmed from a desire to win as many seats as possible through vote redistribution. In the Romanian mixed-member proportional representation system, candidates who won an absolute majority of votes in a college gained the seat for that college, but electoral colleges that produced no majority winners had seats allocated according to the d’Hondt method. Votes for formations not reaching the 5 percent threshold were redistributed among the winning parties. Proportional representation determined the distribution of seats in both chambers, and enlarged the Chamber of Deputies from 334 seats to 412, and the Senate from 137 to 176. With its 588 members, the new legislature is the largest in post-communist Romania. As in 2008 the vote redistribution permitted candidates placed second or third in a college to win a seat.
The electoral campaign
All parties made unrealistic promises backed by no sound financial analyses. The ARD promised to reduce both income and profit tax to 12 percent in 2013 to encourage more Romanians to officially report their economic activities; keep the value-added tax unchanged at 24 percent; raise the minimal wage to 850 Lei in 2013 and 1,000 Lei in 2015; and reduce the unemployment contribution by 5 percent. The USL pledged to introduce a progressive income tax structure (8 percent for incomes up to 800 Lei, 12 percent for 800-1,600 Lei, and 16 percent for incomes over 1,600 Lei); leave the profit tax unchanged at 16 percent; raise minimal wage to 1,200; decrease the value-added tax to 19 percent; and reduce the unemployment contribution by 5 percent. All these benefits were to start in 2016. Economists deemed these pledges unrealistic and pointed out that decreasing tax collections was unfeasible, since Romania had to reduce its national deficit, repay loans of 7 billion Euros with no access to European Union funds, and increase wages for public servants as promised by the Ponta cabinet. The ARD and the USL also failed to address the core requests of business groups that have asked for financial stability, more transparent procedures for the registration of firms, the elimination of red tape, and an end to political interference in public tenders. The electoral platforms of other parties were even less realistic.
The PPDD’s 100 promises targeted voters dissatisfied with both the USL and the ARD, whose main parties (the PSD and the PDL, respectively) were rooted in the National Salvation Front that toppled communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and had dominated post-communist politics since 1989. The PPDD promised to give each Romanian citizen 20,000 Euros, free medicine, child support. It further pledged wage and pension increases for all public servants, lustration (the elimination from public office of former communist decision makers and secret agents), lower utility costs, free tractors to each village, the confiscation of wealth that was not fully unjustified, a citizens‟ opinion tribunal to judge post-communist politicians for their incompetence and malfeasance, 20,000 apartments rented for 25 Euros per month to young people, jobs for all university graduates, the annulment of parliamentary immunity, Romania’s reunification with its former territory Bessarabia, and a unicameral legislature of 300 members, among others. The UDMR, representing the 1.5 million strong Hungarian minority, promoted local administrative autonomy for the predominantly Hungarian counties of Harghita and Covasna, the protection of minority rights, and cultural self-determination.
As in 2008, top politicians ran in safe colleges, where their party had historically gained support, and avoided direct confrontation with rival leaders of comparable caliber. This meant that some candidates ran in colleges with which they had no previous relation. For example, while born in Buzau and residing in Bucharest, former PDL Minister of Tourism and Regional Development Elena Udrea ran for a deputy seat in Roman, a town in Moldova. Instead of confronting the PNL leader Crin Antonescu, Blaga ran against a little known USL candidate in Timis. As such, the winning candidate was known in most districts even before the election results were officially announced. Candidates reached out to voters and spent money on advertisement only in colleges where the race was tight and an active campaign likely changed the electoral outcome. Journalists denounced the campaign as the weakest since 1989, and criticized the USL and the ARD for informally helping each other to win parliamentary representation.
Election results and the formation of the new cabinet
The USL emerged as the clear election winner, gaining 66.2 and 69.3 percent of deputy and senatorial seats, respectively, followed by the ARD (with 13.6 and 13.7 percent), the PPDD (with 11.4 and 11.9 percent), and the UDMR (with 4.4 and 5.1 percent). As in 2008, 18 deputy seats were reserved for ethnic minorities other than the Hungarians, and no independent candidates secured seats. The USL gathered the largest number of seats ever obtained by a formation since 1989. The ARD, which included the PDL, a party that has been present in parliament throughout the post-communist period, scored marginally better than the newly formed PPDD, which entered the house for the first time. The USL candidates ranked first in terms of the total number of votes in 421 of the 446 electoral districts (that is, 94.4 percent of all districts), the UDMR candidates in 25 districts (5.6 percent), and the ARD and the PPDD candidates in none. Some 97 percent of the new USL deputies (265 of 273) and 66.6 percent of the UDMR deputies (12 of 18) secured seats with a majority of votes in their districts. Only two
ARD deputies (representing Romanians living abroad) and no PPDD deputy managed to do so. These results were mirrored in the upper house, where 117 USL senators (95.9 percent of all USL senators), 6 UDMR senators (66.6 percent), but no ARD or PPDD senators won their seats with majority of votes. Elections were organized in 42 colleges, which included 40 counties, Bucharest, and the diaspora. The USL deputies and senators represent all 42 colleges, whereas the ARD and the PPDD deputies represent 38 colleges and their senators represent only 21.
On 27 November, President Basescu threatened to refuse Ponta’s nomination as prime minister and invoked Article 103, which reads that “the President of Romania shall designate a candidate to the office of Prime Minister, as a result of his consultation with the party which has obtained absolute majority in Parliament, or — unless such majority exists — with the parties represented in Parliament.” For Basescu and his supporters, the article gave the president the exclusive right to nominate the prime minister even by going against the popular vote if he felt the candidate of the party with a clear parliamentary majority was anti-European, as Ponta presumably was. They also argued that the president could not consult with the USL, because Article 103 mentioned “party,” not “electoral bloc.” Basescu’s interpretation was unconstitutional because it invalidated the popular vote by making the nomination conditional on the president’s subjective evaluation of the candidate, and ignored tradition, since in 1996 and 2004 the president consulted with electoral blocs and appointed prime ministers nominated by them. According to the constitution, if the president twice rejects the nomination, parliament is disolved and new elections are called.
Basescu’s plans to provoke a constitutional crisis were stalled by the PDL’s and the UDMR’s refusal to nominate candidates. On 17 December, Basescu appointed Ponta as prime minister of a new 20-member cabinet formed by the USL and the UDMR. The opposition, ARD and PPDD, which barely controls 25 percent of seats, will be unable to use an important tool of parliamentary control over the executive – the censure motion. The new cabinet, which commands the support of a parliamentary majority large enough to pass constitutional amendments, could change the constitution to reduce the number of legislators, and limit the prerogatives of the president and the Constitutional Court. The cabinet is expected to improve living standards, facilitate economic growth, boost the performance of public administrative bodies, strengthen the independence of the judiciary, eradicate corruption and clientelism, and reduce public waste. These tasks might be difficult to fulfill in times of economic recession, the more so since the cabinet will have to work with an inimical president. The cabinet’s staunchest enemy, however, could be none other than the USL, if its party members turn against each other, misuse public resources for private gain, and weaken the judiciary to gain impunity.
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Stan, Lavinia and Razvan Zaharia. 2011. “Romania,” European Journal of Political Research, 50 (7): 1105-1114.
Stan, Lavinia and Diane Vancea. 2009. “Old Wines in New Bottles? The Romanian Parliamentary Elections of 2008,” Problems of Post-Communism, 56 (5): 3-13.
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