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Analysis: Opposition Candidate Bows Out Of Romanian Race

Theodor Stolojan, the main opposition candidate in Romania's November presidential elections who had mysteriously disappeared from the public eye recently, on 2 October announced his withdrawal from the race due to health concerns. The PNL-Democratic Party candidate also said he is stepping down as chairman of the National Liberal Party (PNL) for the same reason.

"Unfortunately, my road to the presidency ends here," Reuters cited Stolojan as telling journalists. "It was a tough road which left deep marks. My health requires urgent medical treatment." According to the daily "Evenimentul zilei," Stolojan, who had a kidney removed a few years ago, has been told by doctors that his remaining kidney is failing.

Stolojan's unexpected departure from politics throws the contest for the presidency, the outcome of the parliamentary elections (also slated for November), and Romanian political life in general into uncertainty. The former prime minister (1990-91), whose former links with the currently ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) were viewed by some observers as reason to doubt his new political identity, joined the PNL in July 2000 and served as that party's National Council chairman from 2000 to 2002. In August 2002, Stolojan was elected PNL chairman and soon afterward, together with Democratic Party Chairman Traian Basescu, the electoral alliance of the two parties was set up. In December 2003 and in February 2004, the Democratic Party and the PNL, respectively, selected Stolojan as the alliance's presidential candidate.

Public opinion polls had consistently indicated that Stolojan was the most promising presidential challenger against the ruling party's candidate, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. Stolojan's announcement, as the head of the nongovernmental organization Alina Mungiu-Pippidi told Reuters, "resets everything. The game starts from scratch."

The problem with a "new game" is that there is little time to lose before the election campaign starts. This is apparently why a leadership forum within the PNL acted quickly on 3 October and agreed to endorse Basescu, a co-chairman of the two-party alliance who was reelected in July as mayor of Bucharest. Basescu had earlier said that he would accept a nomination if the PNL endorsed him. The decision, however, is not final, since a joint meeting of the two-parties' leadership still has to approve it. The same PNL forum approved Stolojan's 2 October proposal to select Calin Popescu-Tariceanu as the PNL's interim chairman. Tariceanu thus automatically becomes co-chairman of the alliance alongside Basescu and, according to some Romanian media reports, he is likely to be the alliance's nominee for premier if it forms the next government.
While hardly a charismatic personality, Basescu (unlike Stolojan) will not shy away from taking the populist route.

But things are not that simple. The PNL's tendency to become engaged in infighting was essentially what promoted Stolojan, who was initially an outsider, to his leadership position. He was promoted in an attempt to mend rifts within the party -- a task in which he was partly successful. Popescu-Tariceanu, on the other hand, is known to belong to a group in the leadership close to businessman Dinu Patriciu, which is opposed to the alliance with the Democrats in the first place.

Whether the alliance can survive the loss of Stolojan and for how long is the first question that should be posed. The second thing to consider is that Basescu is undoubtedly a vastly different presidential candidate than Stolojan was, as the two men's political styles are at opposing ends, as is their political discourse.

The introvert, taciturn Stolojan might have made a good candidate in Western Europe or in places like the Czech Republic, but many observers were skeptical of his capability of stirring the enthusiasm of Romanians. While hardly a charismatic personality, Basescu (unlike Stolojan) will not shy away from taking the populist route if need be. Indeed, after publicly shedding tears as Stolojan announced his withdrawal from the race, Basescu alleged on 3 October that Stolojan had not really dropped out due to health reasons. The former premier, he said, had received threats (presumably from the PSD) to make public Stolojan's short stint of hospitalization in a psychiatric ward in the 1980s and his alleged involvement in setting up a dubious company while he was premier. Unlike Stolojan, Basescu said, he is "thick skinned" and would not be so easily intimidated by blackmail.

The perceived allegation of PSD involvement prompted a denial by Prime Minister Nastase, but the change of course in the campaign was immediately apparent. Whether or not this change is to the long-time benefit of Romanian politics and society is another question, but clearly the PSD and the extremist PRM are now being checked by the other end of the political spectrum.