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Profile: Traian Basescu

  • Michael Shafir

Bucharest Mayor and Democratic Party Chairman Traian Basescu, 53, received 33.92 percent of the vote in the first round of the Romanian presidential election on 28 November. (Adrian Nastase received 40.94 percent of the vote, according to the Romanian Electoral Bureau.)

Basescu stepped in as the opposition Justice and Truth alliance's presidential candidate after that group's first choice, former National Liberal Party (PNL) Chairman Theodor Stolojan, withdrew from the race on 2 October citing poor health. Basescu subsequently suggested that the real grounds for Stolojan's decision were threats he received to disclose details of his brief hospitalization in a psychiatric ward in the 1980s and his alleged involvement in the creation of a dubious company while he was prime minister in 1991-92. Basescu offered himself as a "thick-skinned" alternative who would not easily be intimidated or blackmailed.

Shortly before Basescu was reelected to a second term as mayor of the capital in 2004, prosecutors reopened a nine-year-old file on a questionable privatization that took place while Basescu was transportation minister in governments headed by Petre Roman and Stolojan in 1991-92. That investigation was first launched in 1996, when Basescu willingly resigned from parliament and gave up his immunity in order to allow the investigation to run its course. The inquiry produced nothing, but it was reopened in 2003. Purported minutes of ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) leadership meetings published during the presidential campaign include former Justice Minister Rodica Stanoiu telling her colleagues that she was exerting pressure on the judiciary to reopen those files.

Basescu was also accused (not only by the PSD but also by the smallish Popular Alliance party) of having been an informer for the communist-era Securitate. In September, those allegations were traced back to the Defense Ministry. A court ruled a few days later that the two Popular Alliance party members who made the allegations were unable to prove them and ordered the two to pay Basescu a symbolic 500 lei ($0.02) compensation, clearing them, however, of having made the allegations with the intention of slandering him.

Basescu was born in a village in Constanta County on 2 November 1951. He is a sailor by profession, having graduated in 1976 from the commercial section of the Constanta-based Institute of Civil Marine. He worked his way up the hierarchical ladder of the Romanian Navrom commercial fleet to captain of Romania's largest commercial ships in 1981-87. Between 1987-89, Basescu was head of the Navrom agency in Antwerp, the Netherlands, and (still under the Nicoale Ceausescu regime) he became general director of the State Inspectorate of Civic Navigation in the Transportation Ministry.

After the regime's overthrow, he served as head of the naval transportation department with the rank of deputy minister in the Transportation Ministry.

Basescu's political career began in earnest in 1991. For two consecutive years, he was transportation minister in governments dominated by the then-ruling National Salvation Front (FSN), on whose lists he was elected to parliament in 1992.

Following the 1992 split in the FSN, Basescu followed Petre Roman into the Democratic Party, and, in 1996, he coordinated Roman's unsuccessful presidential campaign. Basescu was reelected as a Democratic Party lawmaker in 1996 and until 2000 was again transportation minister in cabinets headed by Victor Ciorbea, Radu Vasile, and Mugur Isarescu.

In July 2000, running as Democratic Party candidate, he was elected Bucharest mayor. Basescu was reelected to that post in a crushing, first-round victory over PSD candidate Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana in June 2004. Having turned against Roman, Basescu replaced the former in 2001 at the head of the Democratic Party. Basescu became a co-chairman of the Justice and Truth alliance -- formed between his Democratic Party and the PNL -- in September 2003.

Political observers in Romania and abroad consider the flamboyant Basescu at times inclined to overreaction, in addition to being a politician whose electoral instincts might lead him into populist postures.