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Profile: Gigi Becali

After receiving 2.36 percent of the vote in the 28 November election for Romania's lower house and 2.23 percent of the vote for the upper house, the New Generation Party (PNG) seems to be hardly worth attention. PNG leader Gigi Becali did even worse, garnering a meager 1.77 percent in the first round of the presidential election.

In the presidential vote, Becali did only slightly worse than Gheorghe Ciuhandu, chairman of the historical and institutionally established National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (1.90 percent) and better than former Prime Minister Petre Roman (1.35 percent), and the PNG did better than Chiuandu's party (1.92 percent) and far better than Roman's Democratic Force, which polled less than 1 percent.

A newcomer to politics, Becali lacks any formal education. He is a former shepherd who made his fortune right after the fall of the communist regime. Today, he is Romania's fourth-richest politician, with a fortune estimated by the publication "Capital" in 2004 at $200 million. Becali was by far the richest out of Romania's 12 presidential contenders in 2004.

There is nothing wrong with being rich, of course. Becali attributes his wealth to fortune, belief in God, and (last but not least) to his family, from which (he said in an interview ahead of the 2004 elections) he received some $150,000-$180,000 as the regime fell. That was certainly a lot of money for anyone, let alone a simple shepherd at the down set of the Ceausescu regime. According to the tabloid "Atac," Becali's fortune can be traced back to his father, Tase Becali. A shepherd of Aromanian origins, Tase Becali was involved in lucrative black marketing with sheep, from which a network of communist officials, the secret police (Securitate), and Arab meat dealers all profited.

In 2004, Gigi Becali (born in June 1958) decided to enter politics. He did so by simply becoming president of a phantom party, established in January 2000 by former Bucharest Mayor Viorel Lis, who had resigned from the PNG after failing to gain representation on the Bucharest City Council. Whether of not Becali bought the party for cash or decided to take it over at the urging of his friend, Social Democratic Party (PSD) official Viorel Hrebenciuc, as some journalists alleged, may never be known. According to this version, it was the PSD's intent to take voters away from the Greater Romania Party (PRM) by creating a Christian-democratic formation that would be acceptable to the West and a possible coalition partner.

Except that Becali apparently had his own plans. Having hired political scientist Dan Pavel as a consultant in March 2003, he began employing the political discourse of the interwar fascist Iron Guard. Pavel, who used to be a specialist (and a prominent opponent) in Iron Guard renaissance, never addressed this issue. He simply confessed that as Becali's consultant he would make more money than he would have made in 10 years as a university professor.

Becali first came out with the slogan "Everything for the Country" (which was used at one point by the Legionnaires as the name of their party), then promised to "make Romania into a country like the holy sun in the sky." The words were taken almost literally from a famous Iron Guardist song and were based on a letter addressed by Ion Mota to fascist leader Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, shortly before Mota died in Spain in 1937. In between, Becali said that he was ready to help any religious organization except for Jews, who allegedly were well infiltrated in Romanian politics. He also called on television for the canonization of Codreanu, which brought on the station (the ultranationalist Oglinda TV, which had similar precedents) a fine of 50 million lei ($1,820 ) imposed by the National Audiovisual Council. The Central Electoral Bureau, on the other hand, rejected a complaint by the Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism against the slogan used by the PNG; the bureau ruled that the slogan was not "identical" to that used by the Iron Guard. Under a 2002 government ordinance, the use of fascist symbols and public fascist discourse is punishable by a fine or prison sentence.

Becali may in the future want to try his hand where his postcommunist Romanian predecessors (ranging from the Movement for Romania and a plethora of other extreme-right parties to the Greater Romania Party) have failed. There is certainly one thing he (unlike those predecessors) does not lack -- money. One should watch whether financial capital is not turned into "stray sheep" -- gathering political capital.