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March 31, 2023

Intellectuals of character

‘Maybe Romanians won’t want a player-president like myself, maybe they will want an intellectual with foresight’. This is how Traian Basescu propelled Teodor Baconschi towards a prospective presidential candidacy. And we all know that the president’s word is still worth something, at least in the ruling party. The current foreign affairs minister did not prevaricate about it with elegance, but declared himself ready to join the race. He has already taken two concrete steps: after years of cooperating with President Basescu and months at the helm of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, he has joined the party and has set up a Christian-democratic foundation that has already issued a political manifesto. What kind of personal plans are shaping up and how they can work in harmony with the expectations of the liberal-democratic leaders or of President Basescu’s is the kind of question bearing multiple-choice answers.

With the presidential ambition already publicly undertaken, the landmarks of the future political and, eventually, electoral campaign are still to be determined. What is the novelty such candidate would bring along? Teodor Baconschi is an intellectual. A theologian, he is familiar with a humanist culture of Christian inspiration. Unlike other politicians who sought a Christian identity for their action, Baconschi has the advantage of a clear-cut doctrine and of moral independence. When C.V. Tudor was introducing himself as the country’s first possible Christian president, such title had an appearance of improvisation and doubtfulness. When the Orthodox clergymen represented the left and catholic priests represented the right in Parliament, what seemed to be at stake were church-related interests. When versatile and often venal politicians were reminding of the values of Christian-democracy, suspicions were quite legitimate. Teodor Baconschi has made a career in diplomacy and has never been associated with any such scandal. He is equally a lay intellectual, uninvolved in the institutional affairs of the Church. The manifesto the foundation presided over by him has released points to a certain amount of effort being put into contouring a doctrine. It assumes Christian dimension, while trying to put it into a local frame of political objectification. Its political call goes to the ‘middle class’ – a phrase and concept that has generated a lot of confusion in the Romanian debates of the last twenty years. The manifesto tries to put liberal principles next to Christian ones. Its clarifications firstly seek to uncouple the latter from the political offer of the left that has taken advantage of the ‘socialist’ interpretation of ‘social’ Christianity. Although it also had notable sources in the political culture of the left, Western Christian-Democracy was forged in the post-bellum period by separation from both heathen fascist trends and from the pro-Soviet atheistic communism just as totalitarian as the first two. In post-communism Romania, a Christian-democratic doctrine failed to be properly articulated. In spite of giving a president and there prime-ministers, the Peasants’ Party was only vaguely preoccupied with the matter and chose to dwell more on the general image of the current in Western Europe or attaching excessively hard to the Greek-Catholic Church (in line with a historical tradition).

Up until now, as Teodor Baconschi suggests, the affiliation of the democrats (now the liberal-democrats) with the EPP was a matter of pure circumstance. On the eve of Romania’s accession to the EU, the European People’s Party were on the lookout for a successful party here, that would bring them parliamentary benefits. Traian Basescu, in turn, had had enough of racing along the same old corridor neck to neck with PSD, so he though a sudden turn to the right would do him good. However, save of electoral rhetoric and individual exceptions of politicians, the democrats did not speculate on this doctrine size. Aware of his multiple potential, Teodor Baconschi is trying to do that now. First of all, a clarification of doctrine can attract the sceptics fed up with party talk void of meaning and lack of vision (and President Basescu was astute enough to see that aspect). In addition, the right-wing electorate, most of whom is still orphan, is waiting for new offers the liberals, for examples, seem incapable of providing. Not least, the stake on the Christian dimension of a political project can generate enough public endorsement, having a ‘transversal’ electoral capital crossing over all social strata. One should not overlook the capital of enthusiasm brought by the youth, who could find again the lost political militancy of the mid-1990s. But what is the opinion of the liberal-democratic leaders? The most important among them, President Basescu, understood that his fall in popularity had to be counteracted by a new turn. He, the rough and populist leader, tough on enemies and sometimes vulgar in expression, chose to back up an intellectual with exquisite manners who also happens to be a theologian. He has admitted to his first shortcoming in his terms so far: the lack of strategic foresight. The weight of the choice of a ‘succession’ will obviously be major. Traian Basescu remains a Zeus for his party. But is the party ready to welcome Baconschi not only as a candidate, but also as a reformist, as he already appears to be? The current minister lacks authority in a party that is already having difficulties taking the criticism of a handful of intellectuals who have the president’s support. Baconschi can try either to win the hearts of the members step by step (another academic imposed by others as a reformist, Andrei Marga, failed after just a few months with the Peasants’ Party), or to ally with leaders with authority. Vasile Blaga is one of them and has already shown willingness to help. The former interior minister can thus hope to become prime-minister under Baconschi’s presidency. However, apart from all these internal party matters, there are less promising facts we need to remember. The association, even in terms of doctrine, with the Church (first of all with the Orthodox one) besides trust, will also generate hostility. And the profile as an engaged intellectual will also stir enough suspicion, specially after the period of the controversial support (sometimes without a trace of criticism) acclaimed intellectuals gave Basescu. In addition, if the team working for the foundation and expected to generate solutions of doctrine customized to Romanian politics fails to live up to the morale expectations of this responsibility and use it to get to important political positions, the disappointment will be big. To paraphrase an old quip, ‘we need intellectuals of character’. Teodor Baconschi is the first to pass the test.

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