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December 8, 2022

Candidates without a strategy

We are going through a hot summer, the heated days being only interrupted by scattered showers and local floods. Political life is getting just as hot only a few months ahead of the presidential election. The holiday lull politicians have got us used to is gone as we are now watching a relentless fight engaging the most prominent candidates for president. It is a battle fought outside the scope of the election campaign, preceding it, in fact, and leaving no room for guessing: we are in for a life and dearth final clash.

The presidential candidates are already known by now. Whether we like it or not, out of the long list of people having announced their intention to stand for election, only three stand an actual chance of being elected: Mircea Geoana (PSD), Crin Atonescu (PNL) and the incumbent president, Traian Basescu, who will be running for a second term.

Naturally, real chances are very different: while, based on the latest opinion poll, the first two can count on about 19 per cent of the voter’s preferences, the head of state gathers the voting intentions of around 38 per cent or Romanians. Things can change in the runoff, but a majority of analysts say Traian Basescu has the first chance, despite poignant criticism in the mass-media and his declared war on media trusts.

Each of the three has chosen his own way of making himself known to the public. And yet, all these candidates have one thing in common: the lack of a strategy, we would think. None of the three has contoured a political, economic and social strategy, or his approach to the voters. They all act on impulse. If, in Traian Basescu’s case, the fact could be linked to what some call ‘political instinct,’ in the other two it could easily be mere responses to the president’s statements and action.

But let us take them one by one and see what they are all about.

Mircea Geoana is supported by a powerful party, the most powerful in Romania post 1990. It is a good but also uncomfortable position as it is still associated by many with the communist legacy, with Ion Iliescu (who held three terms as president) or with the well-known corruption during the term in office of former PM Adrian Nastase, for example. Adrian Nastase, Miron Mitrea and even Ion Iliescu, as well as many others, were and still are involved in interminable judicial proceedings, mainly for corruption (except PSD’s Honorary President Ion Iliescu, whose 1990 miners’ riot case has just been closed).

But this is not Mircea Geoana’s primordial problem. On the one hand, he’s facing a deficit of trust, as he has been beaten by Traian Basescu once in the Bucharest mayor election. On the other hand, his action is greatly determined by what the president does, with almost all his public appearances being motivated by answering or accusing Traian Basescu. He also has limited margin for manoeuvre as long as the Social-democrats are in the government, which prevents him from unleashing against the executive as he would normally do from the opposition. Let’s say he has chosen a rather peculiar way of making himself known to the voters, by attending outdoor festivities and popular fairs, etc. quite often, practically replicating Traian Basescu’s trips but totally unable to borrow any of his joviality when meeting the people. On the other hand, he insists on keeping his diplomatic stature, the appearance of a specialist on international relations – former ambassador to the US, former foreign minister, former OSCE head – which doesn’t really add up when he travels the country. Moreover, the recent scandal between Education Minister Ecaterina Andronescu and the ‘Spiru Haret’ University could shed a bad image upon him. Geoana is not supporting his Social-democratic minister bringing the (wrong – specialists say) argument that there is retroactive action is impossible in the case of academic degrees. He has chosen to fail his minister and the respect for the law in the case of the flagrant violations by the named university. He could get the votes of a few dozens of thousands of graduates in difficulty, but he’s actually losing more in terms of image.

Strategy also lacks in the case of the Liberal Crin Antonescu. He’s avoiding travelling to the country – at least visible and media-covered or coverable appearances. He holds press conferences where he toughly denounces the conduct of the president and of the government and tries to come up with Liberals solutions to crisis. From the opposition, theoretically he should be in the best position to criticise the errors or excessive action of the power, but he keeps to a decent language (!) – others don’t – and focussed criticism. He’s falling into the same trap as Mircea Geoana, reacting to what Traian Basescu does or says without presenting is own agenda to the electorate. His proposals in the economic department or against the current crisis come against PSD and PDL’s answers assigning blame to the former Liberal government for the unfortunate economic circumstances. The National Liberal party has not yet found the most effective answer to give the voters an alternative to the current rule.

Traian Basescu has no strategy either. He reacts – as we were saying – instinctively, but he has a good political instinct, indeed. He keeps his aura of popularity by shearing sheep, by meeting with locals at all kinds of celebrations where he also takes plum brandy. He laughs loudly and gives cutting and sometimes uninspired answers to anyone attacking him. The recent Tusnad episode when he was hooted at by the Hungarians when he talks about local autonomy and about the first article of the Romanian Constitution did him more good than bad, even at the risk of driving away some of the voters belonging to that ethnic minority. What the citizen saw was a president very much determined to say a decisive ‘No’ to anyone questioning the substance of Romania.

And yet, Traian Basescu’s popularity rating is falling. The episode featuring the Youth and Sports Minister Monica Iacob Ridzi was not of any help to him. He didn’t participate in it. At first, he claimed to have more important things on his mind and said it was something the prime-minister should be dealing with, but then he raged at the media trusts that, in his view, stood at the origin of the entire matter.

Nonetheless, setting aside the ‘Ridzi case’ as such, Traian Basescu’s non involvement tells us something else: an intention to gradually put some distance between him and the action of the government, even if the party that had propelled him, PDL, was on that government. The recent scandal was an example. On the other hand, the president has not been seen to participate much in cabinet meetings or taking positions on executive matters lately as he once did. Even if he is certain to run for president this autumn, Traian Basescu allowed for a question mark to the extent to which people should become curious. His reason for possibly renouncing his candidacy: economic derailment. We all realise that the government would be responsible for any such derailment. It is the same government the president wants to get detached from in the next period to preserve a great chance of success in the presidential election…

There are also reasons for him to keep clear. The government shows some chronic flaws, besides the PDL and PSD divide: not so competent ministers, ‘thin’ administration, promises falling behind, ineffective measures – and the list could go on. Traian Basescu knows the executive is a millstone around his neck and, most likely, he will continue to take a new step farther every day.

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