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Analysis: Romania's Presidential Runoff Produces Possible 'Cohabitation' Scenario

Basescu claiming victory in Bucharest on 12 December With almost all the votes counted in the 12 December presidential runoff, opposition candidate and Bucharest Mayor Traian Basescu appears to have won a surprise victory over outgoing Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. According to the Central Electoral Bureau, Basescu, who is the candidate of the National Liberal Party (PNL)-Democratic Party alliance, has garnered 51.23 percent of the vote, as compared to 48.77 percent for his rival, who ran as the candidate of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD)-Humanist Party alliance. The results are based on 99 percent of polling stations counted.

Assuming the final results confirm Basescu's victory, it is close to sensational. Basescu (Profile: Traian Basescu) went into the runoff with a serious handicap, lagging some 700,000 votes behind his rival after the 28 November first round. In the first round, Nastase (Profile: Adrian Nastase) received 40.04 percent, whereas Basescu got 33.92 percent.

Basescu, the chairman of the Democratic Party, has pulled late surprises in elections before. In the first round of the Bucharest mayoral contest of 2000, he was more than 20 percentage points behind PSD candidate Sorin Oprescu. He won that election and was reelected Bucharest mayor in the first round four years later.

It's too early to say how Basescu managed this latest come-from-behind victory, but several points seem to be worth mentioning. First, Basescu used the only opportunity he had in a face-to-face televised debate with Nastase on 9 December to convince Romanian audiences of his sincerity and intentions to curb corruption and pursue genuine reform. The PSD had been avoiding precisely such a confrontation and agreed to hold only one, aware as it apparently was that Basescu is more convincing that the rigid and formal Nastase.

Perhaps the key moment for audiences came when Basescu turned to Nastase and said, "Romania's problem is that [15 years after the fall of communism] it could not find people other than two former communists like myself and yourself to run for the highest office." It should be borne in mind that research shows that for 73 percent of Romanians, television is the main instrument of information, and that the debate (relayed also by Realitatea TV) had very high viewership.

Second, Basescu attempted to attract votes from supporters of other parties whose candidates did not make it to the runoff. Above all, he said he would welcome "any vote, from wherever it came," because "I make no distinction among Romania's citizens." The appeal was primarily aimed at voters for the Greater Romania Party (PRM), which is the third-largest force in Romania's political spectrum. He was apparently successful in this tactic. Exit polls conducted by the Center for Urban and Rural Sociology (CURS) found that 68.8 percent of those who cast a ballot for PRM Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor (Profile: Corneliu Vadim Tudor) in the first round opted for the PNL-Democratic Party alliance candidate, and only 31.2 percent chose Nastase.

This was quite unexpected, as the PRM is a lot closer to the PSD than the opposition alliance. Basescu, however, convinced PRM voters that if need be, he can be just as much of a nationalist as their leader. In a quite populist manner, he attacked Nastase and the PSD, accusing them of committing "high treason" by allegedly agreeing to grant territorial autonomy to Romania's Szeklers, a group within the ethnic Hungarian minority. The accusation came right after the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) announced it would enter coalition talks with the PSD. Basescu also pledged to be the president of a "Romania that belongs to Romanians," in what was reminiscent of the words used by far-rightist Gigi Becali (Profile: Gigi Becali) in his unsuccessful election campaign.

Basescu's presumed victory may have also been influenced by the fact that UDMR voters did not fully heed the advice of UDMR Chairman Bela Marko to support Nastase at the polls. Although 75.3 percent did so, according to the CURS exit-poll findings, almost one UDMR voter in four (24.7 percent) opted for Basescu.
The Romanian electorate is very polarized and it is doubtful whether a 'cohabitation' scenario could work.

This is the first time that a Romanian president is being elected for a five-year term rather than four, following a constitutional amendment passed earlier this year. This means that whoever occupies the official presidential residence at Cotroceni Palace in Bucharest will play a larger role than any of his predecessors. If this is Basescu, the first question that arises is whom he would designate as prime minister. In several instances, Basescu said he would appoint PNL Chairman Calin Popescu-Tariceanu to the post. But the constitution obliges him to appoint the prime minister either from the party with a majority of members of both the lower and upper houses of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, or after consultations with the parties represented in the legislature. Since no party has a majority, and since the PSD claims it has already formed one, this may lead to a first serious confrontation in a "cohabitation" scenario.

Basescu said in his first reaction to his victory that appointing a new prime minister will be his first priority. UDMR Chairman Bela Marko said that "for now" his party maintains its decision to cooperate with the PSD and the Humanist Party (PUR) in forming a new coalition. However, he added, this might change if the PUR changes its pledge. The PUR (which owes its presence in parliament to having run on joint lists with the PSD) issued an ambiguous statement, pointing out that it is a party with a separate identity and doctrine from the PSD. According to the statement, the PUR doctrine combines social democracy with liberalism and "puts national interest above everything." Some may read in this a hint that the PUR is ready for any deal that would promote its interests.

The Romanian electorate is very polarized and it is doubtful whether a cohabitation scenario could work. At this point, that scenario is just one of many possible options. Early elections are not a remote possibility either.

What Basescu's election will not change, however, is Romania's continued quest for EU membership. Basescu has criticized the outgoing government for agreeing to the conditions imposed by the EU, after negotiations were closed on 8 December. He even said he would demand to reopen negotiations on some closed chapters. But it is more likely that he would refrain from doing so. After all, even Basescu must be aware that Romania cannot risk being left out again of the envisaged 2007 enlargement.