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Analysis: Romania's Opposition Fares Well In Local Elections

The mood at the headquarters of the opposition Democratic Party and National Liberal Party (PNL) in Bucharest is understandably euphoric. Running at the head of a joint ticket, incumbent Bucharest Mayor Traian Basescu, the Democrats chairman, has likely won an impressive landslide in 6 June local elections, securing a second term. Although final results are not expected until later this week, early indications show that Basescu has received an absolute majority of 54 percent. What is more, the PNL-Democratic Party alliance seems, according to the same results, to be well-positioned for the 20 June mayoral district runoffs, all its candidates being ahead of those of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD). Only one district went to a nonalliance candidate -- a former PSD mayor who ran this time as an independent. Significantly, the opposition alliance seems likely to have an absolute majority on Bucharest's municipal council.

In light of the 6 June poll, one should not, however, jump to conclusions about the likely outcome of the November parliamentary elections or the presidential election slated for November or December.

First, Bucharest is not really representative of the country as a whole. The PSD, or candidates running for that party's previous incarnations, have never managed to win the mayoralty in Romania's capital. This is not to detract from Basescu's achievement, especially as the Democratic Party's leader is the first to win the election in the first round. Moreover, Basescu crushed a formidable late-runner, Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana. Given Geoana's popularity in the opinion polls, the ruling party replaced its original candidate, party spokesman Bogdan Niculescu-Duvaz, with the skilled Romanian chief diplomat. Geoana, however, apparently received about 30 percent of the vote. Should Prime Minister Adrian Nastase run for president later this year (as he is largely expected to do), Geoana could still be an electable candidate to replace Nastase as prime minister.
"The conclusion drawn by some commentators that Romanians have given the "thumbs down" to the PSD's endemic corruption might be a little hasty."

Second, popular local leaders might perform far less impressively countrywide and it is still unknown how the Democrats polled across Romania. The votes counted thus far show a mediocre performance at best. With the notable exception of Bucharest, the PNL and Democrats ran separately in most constituencies.

Third, the electoral system used at a local level in Romania differs significantly from that employed in the parliamentary elections, which are proportional and on lists rather than the mayoral winner-takes-all elections. In parliamentary elections, the power of the party, rather than the popularity of candidates, has more of an effect on voters. The PSD has a lot more assets and means to influence voting than all the opposition parties put together.

With this in mind, the conclusion drawn by some commentators that Romanians have given the "thumbs down" to the PSD's endemic corruption might be a little hasty. If this were so, the former head of the PSD Bucharest mayoral administration, Marian Vanghelie, would certainly not have won running as an independent. And as Prime Minister Nastase pointed out, his party has in fact done rather well countrywide. It is significant, from this point of view, that according to initial results the PSD appears to have won a plurality in county council elections -- the only elections comparable with national ones, as a proportional system is employed in both. Out of the 50 percent of votes officially counted countrywide, the PSD secured 33.50 percent, followed by 17.19 percent for the PNL, and 13.87 percent for the Democrats. As the opposition alliance will run on a joint ticket in the parliamentary elections, this seems to indicate that the fall race will be close.

Perhaps the most significant outcome of the local elections is the defeat in Cluj of ultranationalist Greater Romania Party (formerly Party of Romanian National Unity) Mayor Gheorghe Funar, who was running for his fourth term in office. PSD candidate and Administration and Interior Minister Ioan Rus will be facing Democratic Party Executive Chairman Emil Boc in the June runoff. The citizens of Cluj seem to have finally had enough of benches and garbage bins painted in the colors of the national flag.

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