Accessibility links

Breaking News

East European Perspectives: April 7, 2005

7 April 2005, Volume 7, Number 3

This is the last issue of "RFE/RL East European Perspectives." Readers interested in contacting the editor in chief, Professor Michael Shafir, can reach him at Michael Shafir hopes to start publication soon of a new journal under the auspices of the Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, where he is now teaching at the Faculty of European Studies.


By Monica Ciobanu and Michael Shafir

On 28 November 2004, Romanians went to the polls to vote in the parliamentary and presidential elections for the fifth time since the violent overthrow of the communist regime in December 1989. Two weeks later, on 12 December, a runoff of the presidential elections was held between outgoing Prime Minister Adrian Nastase and Bucharest Mayor, Democratic Party Chairman, and Justice and Truth alliance co-Chairman Traian Basescu. The main question addressed in this article is the extent to which these elections represent a successful test for the consolidation of democracy after 15 years of difficult and sometimes turbulent transition to democracy in the country. More specifically, do the results and the manner in which these elections were conducted indicate that some of the problems pertaining to the establishment of a stable democratic regime are likely to be corrected as a result of the 15-year-long and thus relatively lengthy process of democratic socialization? These problems include serious questions regarding the rule of law, the clientelist nature of political parties, the lack of accountability of political elites, and the use of a constructive rather than a personalized and accusatory dialogue between political opponents. The following analysis of the elections will focus on the above issues.

A Comparative Account Of The 2000 And 2004 Elections

To begin with, a presentation of the electoral results of these elections as compared with the previous elections in 2000 provides a picture of how the political landscape has evolved during the last four years.

The Social Democratic Party (PSD) gathered a clear-cut plurality of the vote (37 percent) in 2000; furthermore, that party's presidential candidate, Ion Iliescu, won the runoff against Greater Romania Party (PRM) Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor with the impressive support of more than two-thirds (67 percent) of voters. Formal democratic electoral standards were respected, and although the PSD government that emerged in the wake of that ballot was a minority cabinet, in parliament it was able to rely on a safe majority due to support by the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR). Nastase was thus able to painlessly complete a four-year term as prime minister.

However, established democracies need far more than formal procedures to emerge and to function. Among other things, they need the support of significant segments of the population for political programs, indeed for an ideology with which the party that emerges as victorious in the elections can by and large be identified. Second, they need a consensus in society that the opinion of the majority will be respected for as long as the government's term lasts and for as long as it can rely on a constitutional majority in the legislature. Only such a government could be considered not merely democratically elected, but also as democratically ruling -- in other words, as legitimate (Ciobanu, 2004).

For a consolidated democracy to be what has been called "the only game in town," in other words, it must be primarily based on "positive options" and reflect to a far lesser extent "negative," or "punitive" options. But this was precisely what the 2000 PSD cabinet did not reflect. The plurality of voters who endorsed it did so less on account of its program, than in reaction to the poor performance of the 1996-2000 ruling coalition (which included the Democratic Convention of Romania [CDR], the Democratic Party, and the UDMR). The 2000 victory of the PSD was above all a protest vote, and part of that protest mood came to be reflected in the astonishing performance at the polls of the PRM, which garnered a fifth of the vote (20 percent) and became Romania's second-largest parliamentary party.

This explains to an even greater extent Iliescu's overwhelming victory in the presidential runoff against PRM Chairman Tudor. The xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and ultranationalist Tudor presented himself and his party as the "tribune" of the victims of corruption, the "righteous" ("justitiar") knight who would cut corruption at the roots, a spotless man untainted by previous participation in the spoiling of Romania's postcommunist "looters." To drive that point home, Tudor always wore white suits -- having somehow forgotten that the PRM was associated with the Democratic National Salvation Front (as the PSD was then called) in ruling Romania between 1992-96. Once faced with the astonishing result of the first round of the 2000 presidential elections, when 28 percent backed Tudor, Romanians crowded to throw their support behind Iliescu. Many among Iliescu's new supporters just two weeks earlier had been shouting slogans against the man who had headed the state between 1989 and 1996. Formally, then, Iliescu won by a large majority. In practice, his legitimacy was doubtful in the eyes of many of his supporters in the runoff. The electoral confrontation between Iliescu and Tudor ahead of the runoff focused heavily on mutual personal accusations rather than on alternative ideologies, policies, or issues (see Shafir, 2001b; Ciobanu, 2004).

As for the opposition, its representation in the legislature was meager and became even less significant after the UDMR (which garnered some 7 percent of the vote) concluded a pact of parliamentary support with the PSD. The National Liberal Party (PNL) represented one of the reemerged pre-World War II "historical parties"; the Democratic Party had been created in 1992 as splinter group of the most liberal elements in the National Salvation Front (FSN), set up by Iliescu and his supporters in early 1990. Each garnered some 7 percent of the vote in 2000. Still, their fate was less cruel than that of the National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (the main component of the CDR), which failed to gain any representation and would again fail to pass the 5 percent electoral threshold in 2004.

Four years later, the results of the 2004 elections produced a radically different make-up of the legislature. If the previous parliament was dominated by the PSD, the new legislature is marked by an obvious polarization around two poles of practically equal strength. As in 2000, the PSD ran in alliance with the Humanist Party (PUR), but unlike four years earlier, this alliance was registered as an "electoral" rather than a "political" one. Electoral alliances formally end once the results are in, and each side is subsequently free to opt for its own line.

With the benefit of hindsight, this proved to be a fatal mistake on the part of the PSD: The PSD-PUR alliance won approximately 37 percent of the vote in both chambers of the parliament while the two center-right opposition parties, the PNL and the Democrats, ran together in the Justice and Truth POLITICAL alliance, garnering some 31 percent of the vote. Unlike electoral alliances, political alliances are entitled to set up a single, unified caucus if they wish to. When the 30 PUR lawmakers elected on the lists of the PSD-PUR National Union were subtracted from the total of parliamentarians elected by that formation, the PSD would end with a caucus of 149 deputies and senators, while the opposition alliance would have 161 lawmakers. Since neither of the two blocs had a majority, it was up to the president to appoint the country's next prime minister, after consulting parties represented in parliament; and since the largest parliamentary group was that of Justice and Truth, the PSD ended by winning the elections at polling stations and yet losing them in parliament: Liberal Party Chairman Calin Popescu-Tariceanu was designated prime minister, the PUR switched sides and on 29 December Romania had a new government, formed by Justice and Truth, the UDMR (which garnered some 6 percent), and the PUR (Shafir, 2004b, 2004c, 2004d).

The PRM dropped in 2004 to a representation of approximately 13 percent, which is slightly more than what the party's chairman, Tudor, managed to garner in the first round of the presidential elections, held on 28 November (12.57 percent). Since the end of 2002, Tudor strove to project a different image that would rid him and his party of the label of "extremist," but apparently all he managed was to alienate his hard-core ultranationalist supporters, without convincing anyone on the democratic side of what Romanian journalists ironically dubbed "Tudor's transfiguration." Compared with the 2000 results, this is worth noting, for the PRM is an "antisystem" party (see Sartori, 1976, pp. 132-133) and the electoral outcome seems to point in the direction of democratic consolidation. It "points out"-- but not more than that (for analyses on the Romanian party system of earlier elections, see Voicu, 1998 and Radu, 2003).

As Giovanni Sartori has shown, antisystem parties thrive in situations of "polarized pluralism." Such situations involve not only the NUMBER of parties but also the IDEOLOGICAL DISTANCE between them. Sartori (1976, pp. 126-127) writes that political systems may be "fragmented" -- that is to say include many political parties, and yet belong to the category of systems of "moderate pluralism" in the sense that they are ideologically not too distanced. Conversely, a party system that is both fragmented and polarized is defined by Sartori as one of "polarized pluralism."

After the 2000, and even more after the 2004 elections, Romania certainly moved away from what French political scientist Jean Blondel termed as "a multiparty system with a dominant party" to one described as a "multiparty system without a dominant party" (Blondel, 1972, p. 103). Antisystem parties of the PRM type are likely to do considerably less well in situations of "moderate pluralism," but as long as ideological polarization persists, they still have room to maneuver. And it is exactly such a situation that the 2004 elections produced -- to be more precise, a 2+2 ideologically polarized party system with two dominant poles (a left pole represented by the PSD and a center-right pole represented by the Justice and Truth alliance) and two smaller formations "for sale to the highest bidder." Indeed, the PUR joined the new coalition after supporting Nastase's bid for speaker of the new lower house and the reelection of former Prime Minister and current PSD Deputy Chairman Nicolae Vacaroiu as speaker of the Senate. It could at any time repeat its political pirouette. In turn, the ethnic Hungarian UDMR would apparently be ready to support whoever is ready to accept its very specific agenda.

At the end of the day, what this amounts to might be fragile progress on the road to democratic consolidation. Ideological distance and overpersonalization remain far too pronounced to have allowed for the most rational solution to the outcome of the 2004 parliamentary ballot -- forming a grand coalition between the PSD and the Justice and Truth alliance. Under these circumstances, the "cohabitation" of a president stemming from the alliance with a government formed by the PSD would have been difficult, if not impossible. This does not bode well for either the urgent task of passing legislation that would enable Romania to meet the EU's conditions for accessing in 2007 (the "special clause" looms large) or for political stability in 2004-08.

Has the 2004 vote, nonetheless, signaled that "normative legitimacy" is gaining ground at the expense of "negative legitimacy"? (Ciobanu, 2003). At first glance, this may appear to be happening, were it only for the fact that while most votes in the parliamentary election were cast for the PSD-PUR alliance, its presidential candidate, Nastase, lost the presidential contest. Hence, it might be argued, a plurality of Romanian voters opted for the "leftist" program of the PSD, but not for the person who claimed to embody that program; furthermore, one might argue that this is also an indication that the well-known syndrome of paternalism is on its way out.

At closer examination, the argument has little to rest on. The PSD-PUR alliance's program, as indeed the alliance itself, reflected what Otto Kirchheimer (1990) called "catch-all tactics" aimed at soothing both the very poor and the new entrepreneurial class (see also Ciobanu, 2004). Second, the once-charismatic Tudor also scored less in the presidential elections (12.57 percent) than his party did in the parliamentary ballot (13.6 percent in the Senate and 12.90 percent in the Chamber of Deputies).

Finally, numerous opinion polls repeatedly indicated that urban Romanian voters (over 73 percent) are primarily influenced by television, while rural and small-town voters (which made up and continue to make up the bulk of PSD supporters) are primarily influenced by local opinion makers and bosses. It would, indeed, be strange for a country where 40 percent of the population is rural and suffers from semi-illiteracy, to make electoral choices after reading sophisticated programs dealing with abstractions such as the gross domestic product or direct foreign investment.

Under these circumstances and against the background of the 2000 elections, it seems inappropriate to consider the 2004 elections as a landmark between "unconsolidated" and "consolidated" democracy in Romania; nor would it be justified to view the 2004 ballot as having ushered in genuine democratic legitimacy (see Ciobanu, 2003, for a discussion of these concepts). Indeed, no sooner was the new government in place that the first signs of a crisis emerged, when President Basescu caused what Romanian journalists called a "political tsunami" by dubbing the presence in the cabinet of the PUR as "unethical" and calling for early elections ("Adevarul," 6 January 2005; see also "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 7 January 2005). Examination of the rhetoric employed by the two main contenders in the parliamentary and the presidential races, as well as the procedural problems that arose during the elections and in their immediate aftermath, also shows that there is little ground to overestimate the significance of the 2004 ballot.

Political Parties: Attempts To Construct Credibility

After the 2000 elections, the PSD worked very hard to, and somewhat succeeded in, transforming itself from a postcommunist party with authoritarian and populist tendencies into a European-style social-democratic party. The influence of the Socialist International has been crucial in this respect. The reforms undertaken after 2000 by the PSD made the Romanian government a more serious partner for discussion with the European Union and international organizations. Among the reforms, one of the most notable was the introduction of legislation in respect to the use of minority languages in public affairs that has benefited the Hungarian minority. There has also been substantial economic growth and in October 2003, for the first time since 1989, Romania had successfully met the conditions posed by a stand-by loan signed with the International Monetary Fund.

However, these accomplishments were overshadowed by the clientelist practices of the party, which had remained unchanged. Numerous publicized cases of corruption involving the top PSD county figures, known as "local barons," alienated large sections of the electorate from the party. The Social Democrats received an early warning in the local elections held in June 2004: the county councils produced by that ballot (in which the electoral system employed is closest to the proportional system used in the parliamentary elections) gave the opposition PNL-Democratic Party alliance a very slight edge (38.57 percent) over the PSD (37.81 percent). In addition, the opposition succeeded in winning mayoral races (where a "winner-takes-all" system is in place) in some of the major cities and northeastern counties that were previously strongly dominated by PSD barons (Shafir, 2004a).

In the next three months, the PSD launched a campaign presented to the public as being aimed at decentralization and promotion of party members on the basis of their personal merits and moral character. It must be noted in this connection that the absence of accountability by those seeking office is a general feature of the Romanian political system. This is partly due to the electoral system, that is, proportional representation by list. What matters is not the candidate's performance in his or her electoral district or branch, but the personal relationship they have with the central leadership (Ciobanu, 2005). Nastase seemed to have become aware of some of these drawbacks, and with pressure coming from President Iliescu, some PSD local branch leaders were persuaded to resign.

After an extraordinary congress of the PSD held on 28 August, which unanimously approved Nastase's candidacy for presidency, the party for the first time in its history on 5 September conducted primaries for selecting candidates on its lists for parliament. The exercise was aimed at having on the lists candidates that were popular and eligible in the counties they were to represent in the elections slated for 28 November. But old habits die hard. According to the daily "Adevarul," the primaries were wrought with fraud, as in 10 counties some 20 candidates received more votes than the actual number of those casting a ballot ("Adevarul," 8 September 2004). Furthermore, the central leadership imposed its own candidates on some counties before the primaries and, furthermore, changed the electoral outcome after the primaries were held.

Finally, in September the PSD and the PUR set up the PSD+PUR National Union, thus recreating the alliance that ran jointly for parliament in 2000 (the PUR had left it in September 2003 and ran alone in the June 2004 local elections, scoring slightly above 6 percent in county council elections). The agreement between the two parties stipulated that 32 presumably "eligible" seats on the joint parliamentary lists would be occupied by PUR members (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 10 September 2004). Ultimately, only 30 PUR candidates would make it to the new parliament, but all of them were placed on the lists at the expense of PSD members who won in primaries.

At the end of these pre-electoral days, then, the "democratization" of the PSD had amounted to little else than an exercise in public relations. The (ultimately self-undermining) eagerness of the PSD apparently stemmed from the support it envisaged it would receive from the private television station Antena 1, which is owned by PUR Chairman Dan Voiculescu -- a controversial figure alleged by the media and elements of civil society as having strong ties to the former communist secret services, the Securitate, and as owing his fortune to having managed secret funds of the dreaded Securitate in offshore accounts in Cyprus.

The PSD's image in the eyes of the urban and media-conscious electorate suffered further, possibly significant, damage in the wake of revelations made on 23 and 24 November by several dailies which published a series of transcripts purportedly stemming from Social Democratic leadership meetings and suggesting high-level corruption, interference in the justice system, and attempts at silencing the media (Romanian Academic Society, 2004).

If the PSD's major problem was to present itself to the electorate as a reborn noncorrupt party, the opposition's most difficult task was to develop and preserve the image of a solid and stable alliance. After the 2000 elections the Liberals and Democrats worked hard to construct a strong alternative opposition. Despite reservations expressed by some PNL members in regard to the ideological differences between liberal and social-democratic doctrine, the Justice and Truth alliance was established in 2003. It was jointly chaired by the two parties' leaders, Theodor Stolojan and Traian Basescu, respectively. Stolojan was designated its presidential candidate, but in early October 2003 he withdrew from the race on grounds of poor health. Calin Popescu-Tariceanu replaced Stolojan at the PNL helm.

Before, as well as after Stolojan's withdrawal, a number of prominent PNL leadership personalities expressed misgivings vis-a-vis Basescu's dominant position in the alliance. The most vocal group was the "business wing" gathered around Dinu Patriciu. After the November parliamentary elections, this faction went so far as to raise the possibility of forming a PSD-PNL ruling coalition, but the idea was unequivocally rejected by a meeting of the party's leadership in early December.

There were also notable differences in the approach taken by the two allied formations in establishing who would represent them in the next legislature. Basescu personally and rigorously screened the Democratic Party candidates, arguing that they should be above any suspicion of corruption, that their past performance must be evaluated and that in general rejuvenation was needed. The PNL left it to those local branches that scored 18 percent or more in the June local elections to select who would represent them in the next parliament. As a result, 60 percent of the outgoing PNL senators and deputies retained eligible places ("Adevarul," 20 September 2004).

As for the Hungarian UDMR, it presented the final electoral lists after internal primaries -- a long-standing tradition for this party. The only novelty was the explicit re-including of the demand for autonomy in the electoral platform, due to the pressure exercised by the party's radical wing (for the evolution of autonomy demands within the UDMR and for relations with ethnic Romanian parties see Shafir, 2000a, Shafir 2000b, 2001a, pp. 90-100). Most members of that wing had split from the UDMR before the election, setting up the Hungarian Civic Union (UCM), but that party was denied registration in the local elections by an obvious PSD-UDMR connivance and some of its members unsuccessfully ran for parliament on the lists of former President Emil Constantinescu's Popular Action Party. As it turned out, the UDMR managed to by-and-large retain its electoral base, scoring slightly over 6 percent -- somewhat less than four years earlier, when it had garnered close to 7 percent. The UDMR representation in parliament nonetheless dropped from 39 to 32 lawmakers.

The parliamentary lists presented by all political parties were criticized by the Coalition for a Clean Parliament (CPC), a coalition of several NGOs set up ahead of the November elections in order to promote ethical politics. After examining the final lists, the CPC concluded that 153 candidates (95 PSD+PUR politicians, 46 from PRM, 12 from the Justice and Truth alliance, and three from UDMR) were not suited for office because of their past. Their record, according to the CPC, showed that they had either repeatedly shifted political allegiance, moving from one party to another in search of personal profit; or that they had been accused of corruption on the basis of published verifiable evidence; or that they owned private companies running heavy debts to the state budget; or, finally, that there was evidence of their having served as agents of the Securitate (Coalition for a Clean Parliament, 2004).

The Presidential Election

The tone of the campaign changed dramatically after Stolojan's withdrawal from the presidential race and his replacement by Basescu as the Justice and Truth alliance's presidential candidate. From the start, it was obvious that the course of the electoral campaign would be affected by the differences in the two politicians' backgrounds and personalities. Stolojan, a former finance minister in 1990, became a politically independent prime minister in autumn-spring 1991-92, being mostly in charge of overseeing the 1992 elections; the former prime minister worked for the International Monetary Fund between 1992-99 and in 2000 he headed a team working for President Iliescu's reelection. However, Stolojan joined the PNL in August 2000 and was selected as the party's presidential candidate in the elections held in fall that year. With a score of 11.78 percent, Stolojan placed third in the first round of the contest, after Iliescu and Tudor (Shafir, 2001b). In August 2002 Stolojan became the PNL's new chairman. He played a crucial role in the formation of the electoral alliance with the Democratic Party in September 2003. The electorate largely perceived him as a competent technocrat with a balanced personality.

On the other hand, Traian Basescu is a sailor by profession and the former captain of the Navrom commercial fleet before 1989. He was appointed transportation minister, being in charge of this portfolio between 1991-93, in governments headed by Petre Roman, Stolojan, and Nicolae Vacaroiu. Following the 1992 split in the FSN, Basescu followed Roman into the Democratic Party and served again as transportation minister between 1996-2000, in cabinets headed by Victor Ciorbea, Radu Vasile, and Mugur Isarescu. In this position, he became known as somewhat of a maverick politician, provoking at least two major coalition crises, one which ended with Ciorbea's resignation. In July 2000, running as a Democratic Party candidate, Basescu was elected Bucharest mayor (a position for which he won a second term in June 2004, after a crushing first-round victory over PSD candidate and former Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana). Meanwhile, Basescu had marginalized Roman in the Democratic Party, replacing him at that formation's helm in 2001.

Among other things, Basescu's election as Democratic Party chairman would mark an intensification of the competition between the Democrats and the PSD for the good graces of the Socialist International. The Democrats had been full-fledged members of that body for some time, and the PSD was striving to achieve that status. For that purpose (like earlier the Democrats themselves) they used their association with the only Romanian veteran member of the International -- the Social Democratic Party of Romania, with which the Party of Social Democracy in Romania had merged in 2000. Under Basescu's leadership, the Democrats unsuccessfully tried to bloc the PSD's accession to the Socialist International and consistently denounced it as autocratic and corrupt. Meanwhile, prominent leaders of the PSD and the Democrats moved from one formation to the other (and sometimes back), creating the impression that the struggle was hardly about doctrine and more about seats and power. Again, this hardly helped entrench "normative legitimacy."

Viewed from this perspective, the creation of the Justice and Truth alliance on one hand helped bring "order" into Romania's political spectrum, by setting up two main poles, a leftist one represented by the PSD and a center-right one represented by the PNL-Democratic Party alliance. On the other hand, however, it practically marked the point in time when the Democrats had abandoned the "left" to the PSD. But as the PSD had been pursuing "catch-all" policies for some time now (see above), the effect of "parting the waters" remained for now blurred.

In fact, the electoral campaign launched by Justice and Truth was two-pronged. As long as Stolojan was the alliance's presidential candidate, it focused more on liberal-socialist differences and advocacy of alternative economic policies. Once Basescu took charge of the campaign, it changed course significantly, placing more emphasis on criticizing and attacking the PSD's corruption, with aggressive illustrations and allegations that were not always proved beyond doubt.

Furthermore, Basescu did not shy away from taking a populist route that would have been inconceivable with Stolojan but was quite predictable with the Democratic Party leader. In a manner reminiscent of PRM leader Tudor's past rhetoric, Basescu promised he would "execute with my own hand any minister who would be suspected of corruption" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 22 November 2004). Once he made it to the runoff, he said that 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 PRM (Shafir, 2004c). He was 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 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 is Justice and Truth, as post-electoral developments again confirmed. 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 UDMR announced it would enter coalition talks with the PSD ("Jurnalul national," 6 December 2004; Shafir, 2004c). Ironically enough (as the UDMR switched allegiance after the elections and entered a coalition formed by Justice and Truth, the UDMR and PUR), the anti-Hungarian PRM voters who switched to Basescu helped set up a cabinet most of them would regard as nightmarish.

The PSD employed (largely in parallel) several instruments to minimize Basescu's obvious communication skills and Nastase's just-as-obvious communication difficulties. First, taking advantage of its dominance over broadcast regulator National Audiovisual Council (CNA), whose members are appointed by parliament according to the weight of political representation in the legislature, it devised regulations that made confrontation between Nastase and Basescu possible only once -- just before the runoff. For the rest of the campaign, television viewers had to either watch debates between minor candidates considered by pollsters to have no chance to make it to the runoff or to watch one of the two main candidates debate those minor contenders. There was also one debate in which all 12 contenders responded to questions by journalists but were not allowed to engage in debating.

Viewed from this angle, the 2004 electoral campaign was perhaps the most boring since the first postcommunist elections of 1990. To this one might add the fact that reporting on Romanian television was heavily pro-PSD. As shown in a postelection report produced by the Romanian Academic Society (SAR) it is estimated that "the three main TV channels, TVR1, Antena 1, and ProTV, combining together for about a 60 percent of audience share at the national level, are all politically close to PSD" (Romanian Academic Society, 2004, p. 4).

Second, aware of Nastase's difficulty communicating with large crowds (much in contrast to the spontaneous Basescu), the PSD enlisted the help of its main electoral asset -- outgoing President Iliescu. Arguably in breach of constitutional provisions that oblige the president to stay above party politics, Iliescu appeared at meetings at Nastase's side and the PSD everywhere displayed electoral posters showing the two side by side. This was concomitantly an attempt by the Social Democrats to "humanize" Nastase, who was on several occasion described by Iliescu himself as seeming arrogant. The PSD was clearly counting on Iliescu's ability to mingle with the crowds, displaying his by-now famous smile and air of "one of you folks" that had significantly contributed to his electoral successes in three presidential races (1990, 1992, 2000).

Third, Nastase and his staff repeatedly tried to convey the message that Basescu was an irresponsible leader who might endanger Romania's access of the EU. They reminded audiences of Basescu's (in fact, quite correct, but carelessly-formulated) criticism of the cabinet headed by Nastase for having awarded contracts to German and French companies without holding a proper international tender. How, they asked, does Basescu imagine meeting French Prime Minster Jean-Pierre Raffarin, after having described his visit to Bucharest in October as one during which the guest had "received his allowance" ("tain") from Nastase's cabinet in the form of the contract signed with the French company Vinci for building a section of the Bucharest-Brasov highway? (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 October 2004).

Finally, and particularly after the parliamentary ballot in which the PSD+PUR alliance scored a slight plurality, the PSD was warning against the dangers of "cohabitation" and political instability. It reminded the electorate that the two parties that forged the Justice and Truth alliance and whose presidential candidate was Basescu had been coalition members in the conflict-ridden CDR government of 1996-2000. Ironically, following his victory it would be Basescu who would rule out "cohabitation," while the PSD would unsuccessfully try to force him into it.

Basescu's victory in the runoff at a difference of less than 250,000 votes from those polled by his rival came quite as a surprise, the more so as in the first round he lagged behind the premier more than 700,000 votes (Mediafax, 1 and 12 December 2004). Several factors may explain it, and they are not mutually exclusive. First, the gap between the two contenders might have seemed large enough to PSD supporters not to bother casting a vote in the runoff; indeed, turnout for the presidential ballot on 28 November was 59.99 percent, while in the runoff it dropped to 55.21 percent.

Second, in the only televised debate held between Basescu and Nastase on 9 December, the Bucharest mayor performed considerably better than the stiff prime minister. He insisted on his determination to fight corruption, made the most of Nastase's alleged association with corrupt personalities, alluded to the prime minister's own personal enrichment and, above all, struck a responsive chord among the electorate when he told Nastase, " 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." That broadcast was watched by 62 percent of voters, and more that one-quarter of them said the debate had "strongly" or "very strongly" influenced the way they voted, according to a postelection survey carried out by IMAS ("Curentul," 29 January 2005).

As already mentioned, Basescu's victory was also due to the fact that he was capable of enlisting backing by voters who had supported other candidates in the first round. The CURS exit poll showed that apart from enlisting the support of two in three voters for Tudor, Basescu also managed to drive a wedge among the otherwise disciplined UDMR voters: although UDMR Chairman Bela Marko had called on his supporters to vote for Nastase, nearly one-quarter (24.7 percent) opted for Basescu. The Bucharest mayor also managed to enlist the support of 69.9 percent of those who in the first round voted for neither himself nor Nastase ("Jurnalul national," 13 December 2004).

Basescu in general attracted the younger generation (55.9 percent of those aged 18-30 and 52 percent of those aged 31-55), the better-educated (65 percent of university graduates and 58.5 percent of graduates of high schools), urban dwellers (56.4 percent), and men (50.5 percent). In contrast, Nastase was mostly backed by those aged 56 and over (63.5 percent), the lesser-educated (61.9 percent) and the rural population (58.6 percent). Most of his voters were women (51.3 percent). These statistical breakdowns show that in general the vote for Nastase came from those sectors of the population that are least equipped to deal with the challenges of postcommunism and have more ground to fear the future ("Jurnalul national," 13 December 2004).

Finally, there might have been one more reason why Basescu enlisted more support than Nastase: doubts about the fairness of the parliamentary scrutiny held on 28 November and the first presidential round conducted that day. The allegation of vote rigging raised by Basescu and the Justice and Truth alliance deserves closer examination (see below). While such doubts might have made little difference among supporters of either candidate in the first round (only 3 percent of Nastase backers voted with Basescu on 12 December and 2.5 percent of Basescu backers switched to Nastase, according to the CURS exit poll), they might have mobilized the anti-Nastase vote among the remainder to a greater extent than might have been otherwise the case.

Voting Irregularities And Democratic Legitimacy

Suspicions that the ruling PSD might attempt to rig the election loomed large before the outcome of the parliamentary vote became known on 1 December. Some of these suspicions derived from the failure of both the ruling party and the opposition to change electoral legislation that has raised similar suspicions in the past. Above all, an independent electoral authority that would update lists of eligible voters and would issue election cards to those entitled to cast a ballot was set up in Romania too close to election date to be still capable of fulfilling these tasks. The opposition, which supported in parliament the electoral law regulating the 2004 contest (Law 373/2004) must share at least part of the blame.

The Pro-Democracy Association (APD), an NGO that has long pioneered electoral reform in Romania, had been warning against loopholes in the legislation ahead of the elections. Foremost among these was the possibility of repeat voting. The ID cards used for the purpose of voter identification had been stamped in previous elections. That did not eliminate the danger of multiple voting (there were allegations that people falsely reported the loss of the ID card and received a replacement instead), but made it more difficult than was the case in the current elections. Instead of a stamp (which could no longer be applied to newly issued laminated ID cards), a sticker was placed on each voter's ID card. In theory, the sticker was irremovable. In practice, it could easily be removed, leaving no trace, as demonstrated by SAR Director Alina Mungiu-Pippidi on national television on election night, 28 November.

Second, the electoral law left in place the possibility of voting on the so-called special lists. These are lists for people supposed to be traveling on election day outside their place of residence. Based on previous experience, the APD had been advocating the elimination of the special lists, for there was reason to suspect that some people might use them for the purpose of voting more than once. According to U.S. political scientist Henry F. Carey, this was precisely part of the technique used by the PSD (then called Democratic National Salvation Front) in "winning" the 1992 elections (Carey, pp. 561-562). The special lists and the removable sticker invited another phenomenon known from the past, namely "electoral tourism." In other words, it was claimed that the PSD had organized loads of busses taking state employees on "sight-seeing tours," and that those busses would on their way stop for passengers to vote a second and third time after having cast their legitimate ballot at their polling station.

There was, finally, another loophole that the APD objected to, namely the "mobile urns." Voting boxes would be brought to the homes of voters allegedly incapable of coming to polling stations due to sickness. Those transporting the ballots went unsupervised and unaccompanied, because of an alleged shortage of members of district polling stations. As the APD pointed out, the organization of the elections was the responsibility of the local prefects, which appointed the president and the vice president of the local voting stations. The appointments were made on political, rather then on professional criteria, which should have put judges in charge of the stations. Although the APD sent 3,300 observers to polling stations, the legislation limited the presence of observers to one per polling station -- far too few to be able to cope with all potential irregularities.

But the most disputed episode that raised serious questions regarding the validity of PSD+PUR alliance's electoral victory was the "disappearance" of 160,000 annulled ballots. The Justice and Truth alliance claimed that the number of annulled ballots initially reported by district electoral commissions amounted to some 7 percent of the votes for the presidency and some 9 percent for the two chambers of the parliament. On their way to the Central Electoral Bureau (BEC), the opposition alliance claimed, these votes had metamorphosed into ballots cast for Nastase and for the PSD, respectively. It hence concluded that electronic manipulation must have been at work, with some secret software being used by BEC to falsify the electoral outcome (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2004). A similar allegation had been made by the opposition in 1992 -- only in reverse. At that time, there seemed to be suspiciously too many spoiled ballots (see Carey, 2004, pp. 561-562). The BEC's chairman, Judge Emil Ghergut, denied the allegations, saying the initial reporting by the district commissions was erroneous due to human error that had been corrected in the meantime ("Jurnalul national," 4 December 2004).

But Ghergut lacked credibility, as the opposition had claimed from the start that his appointment was political. Initially, Basescu said he will not challenge the result of the parliamentary elections, but demanded that BEC check again the supplementary lists to assess the level of fraud as a result of "electoral tourism"; he estimated it at between 3 and 5 percent of the votes cast ("RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2004).

Even this restrained reaction brought on the Justice and Truth bloc's presidential candidate the wrath of Judge Ghergut. Ghergut said it was "inadmissible" for Basescu to "bring up grave accusations at our address" only because he failed to win the presidential elections in the first round "as he had boasted he would" (Mediafax, 30 November 2004). The High Court of Cassation and Justice would eventually admonish Ghergut for his statement (see Mediafax, 14 January 2005), and in March 2005 he resigned from the magistracy rather than face sanctions (Mediafax, 16 and 17 March 2005). One wonders, however, if Ghergut would have undergone these tribulations if a PSD government were in office, rather than one headed by PNL interim Chairman Popescu-Tariceanu.

The next day, 1 December, Basescu changed his mind. He demanded that the results of the elections be nullified and that the president of the National Statistical Office (INS) be detained and investigated on suspicion of electoral fraud. He thus followed the example of PRM Chairman Tudor, who, during a 30 November televised interview on Antena 1, demanded the cancellation of both the presidential and the parliamentary elections and the organization of new elections. INS Secretary-General Gabriel Jifcu denied any wrongdoing on the part of his office, though he admitted that the contract signed with the Romanian company that provided the software for processing the centralization of the vote had not been the result of a public tender, as stipulated by law; time, Jifcu claimed, was too short to apply that procedure ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 December 2004). The APD first threatened to boycott the presidential runoff, but after being urged by international organizations to reconsider, agreed to send observers nonetheless.

What is one to make of these recriminations? There is no doubt that multiple voting did occur. Over 500 suspects were under police investigation right after the parliamentary elections ("Adevarul," 30 November 2004), and this was probably just a fraction of those who indulged in the practice. Yet it is just as certain that the offense did not stop at the PSD's door. Indeed, Justice and Truth Senator Brandusel Nichitean lost his seat and was expelled from the Democratic Party after being caught red-handed voting on 28 November no less than five times (see Mediafax, 29 November 2004, 6 December 2004, and 4 January 2005). Electoral tourism has apparently been organized by opposition parties too, though of course to a lesser extent, as they had fewer means to do so. The daily "Adevarul" documented numerous such cases in the southeastern counties of Buzau, Calarasi, and Teleorman ("Adevarul," 30 November 2004) and BBC journalist Nick Thorpe witnessed one such incident in the small town of Voluntari near Bucharest (BBC World News, 28 November 2004). A report released by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's observers' delegation in February 2005 was highly critical of the elections and made no less than 36 recommendations to improve legislation and transparency ("Ziua," 22 February 2005).

In an interview with the private channel Realitatea TV on 10 January, President Basescu said he would ask parliament to set up an ad hoc commission to investigate the fraud allegations. It may be argued that this is much ado about little, if not about nothing. Should the allegations be substantiated, some may claim that the 3-5 percent difference would not have changed much in the parliament's makeup. The PSD+PUR alliance would have still come out on top, though by a much smaller difference than the announced 37.1 percent vs. 31.8 percent for Justice and Truth in the upper house and 36.6 percent vs. 31.3 percent in the Chamber of Deputies. But this is the wrong way of counting on both factual and ethical grounds.

Near equality in the two chambers is likely to have produced a different coalition makeup. The PUR, whom observers consider to be the "weak link" in the ruling coalition, might not have been needed and would not be able, as it is now, to threaten the government's fragile parliamentary majority. One or two defectors from other parties would have been sufficient. The PRM has already produced five such defectors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2005). A slightly different parliamentary makeup would have avoided the possible constitutional crisis that threatens Romania after Basescu's call to dismiss Nastase and Vacaroiu as parliamentary speakers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6, 7, 10, and 12 January 2005).

But above all, the argument that it would not make much difference is one that overlooks the basic rule of the democratic game -- respect of the electorate's will. It poses the question in quantitative terms (HOW MUCH WAS FALSIFIED) instead of posing it qualitative terms (WHAT IS AT STAKE). According to Carey, in 1992 "the rigging was done subtly, changing results on the margins of electoral system rules, while maintaining results not too inconsistent with overall public opinion, and consequently producing a transition from post-totalitarianism to an electoral authoritarian regime" (Carey, 2004, p. 562). The 2004 rigging attempt (IF it occurred) seems to have been similarly staged. That the attempt would be at all made was perhaps due to the fact that "the Social Democrats...learned in 1992 that 'crime pays,' as the ease with which the elections were stolen provided signals of impunity that reinforced the opportunities for corruption that have pervaded Romanian politics ever since" (Carey, 2004, p. 566). The "if it occurred" is of importance. For now, this remains an allegation: a Serbian computer expert invited by the ADP to examine the software used in centralizing the results of the 28 November parliamentary elections concluded that the software was not subjected to electronic manipulation, as claimed by Basescu after that ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 2004).

Yet the suspicion persists. An analysis of the vote's outcome carried out by IMAS concluded that there is a strong correlation between votes on the special lists and/or spoiled-ballot votes, and polling-station victories for the PSD. As IMAS Director Mircea Kivu showed in an article published in late January, at those polling stations where a very large proportion of the vote was cast on special lists or where an unusually large proportion of the ballots were spoiled, the PSD won by a margin of some 20 percent; conversely, where there was a low proportion of special-list votes or of spoiled ballots, victory went to the Justice and Truth alliance by a margin of some 3 percent ("Dilema veche," no. 54, 28 January, 2 February 2005; see also the interview with Kivu in "Romania libera," 29 January 2005; "Cotidianul" and "Ziua," 28 January 2005). As Kivu explained, this could not possibly reflect mere coincidence. And yet, as he put it, "this evidence is circumstantial -- not judicial." In order for the evidence to become grounds for the nullification of the election result, police and the prosecution would have to produce evidence of a scheme and suspects. Even then, under current legislation the election result would not be nullified countrywide, but only in those electoral districts where the courts rule that foul play has been at work.

At stake, once again, is "normative legitimacy." The 2004 parliamentary and presidential elections should have provided the third consecutive electoral opportunity to produce legitimacy in its normative sense (the 1990 and the 1992 elections were questioned on grounds of the FSN's dubious strategies in fighting the opposition). The opportunity was once again missed and not only on grounds of the perhaps inevitable voting irregularities. Above all, the outcome of the elections left in place -- perhaps it even augmented -- ideological polarization.

The paradox is that this polarization is neither entrenched in the value system of the two main opponents, nor in social cleavages. The Justice and Truth alliance includes a party that (for the time being) is still a member of the Socialist International, as is the PSD. As an "exponent of the left," the PSD should have been able to attract younger, socially sensitive intellectuals and the working class. As the voting pattern discussed above shows, it did neither. The PSD's main base is in the elderly, rural or semi-rural population -- hardly a typical support basis for a social-democratic party. But Romania's rural areas are also beginning to change their facets, if somewhat slower than the urban sector. About 1 million village dwellers work abroad, mainly in Western Europe and Israel. They are accumulating capital to start build homes and to start small businesses in their villages. And willy-nilly they are also accumulating a sense of what the combination of free enterprise and freedom of choice is all about, as political scientist Stelian Tanase pointed out ("Ziua," 15 January 2005). Demography and geography seem to be at work at eroding the once-powerful, clientelist PSD.

That leaves two main further hurdles on the longer run to the democratic consolidation end-line: over-personalization of politics and its clannish, informal (in the Weberian sense) traditions that communism reinforced and the no less traditional discrepancy between the law and its actual implementation (see Shafir, 1985, pp. 13, 55 and passim on the traditional gap between PAYS LEGAL and PAYS REEL in Romanian society).

Concluding Remarks And Future Challenges For Romanian Democracy

Ample evidence from the 2004 elections indicates that the rule of law continues to pose a serious problem for the process of democratic consolidation in Romania. As Guillermo O'Donnel emphasized, "a state that is unable to enforce its legality supports a democracy of low-intensity citizenship" (O'Donnel, 1999, p. 142). This state of affairs explains why acceptance of democratic institutions and procedure has remained until recently a matter of passive citizen acquiescence.

Since the first postcommunist elections of 1990, democratically elected representatives have failed to conform to expectations regarding the impersonal duties and responsibilities of office. Instead, they have frequently acted in a particularistic manner, seeking largely the pursuit of personal self-interest. The greatest challenge that lies ahead for the newly elected political authority is to convince the public that the institutions they represent and their own deeds are a reflection of democratic principles.

The record of the first weeks in power of the country's new rulers seems to indicate that qualitative change is in sight. Above all, closing the gap between declarations of intent and actual practice in tackling endemic corruption and the clan-like structures through which it is exercised appears to be high on the new president's and government's agenda.

On the other hand, personalization of politics is far from giving way to institutionalized, formal democracy. Basescu promised to be an "active" president and has thus far been extremely, perhaps overly active. There is a danger of "meeting expectations" that go beyond what constitutional limits permit. This danger might augment if political stability declines as a result of the parliament's makeup.

To implement its tasks, the government needs a stable majority. It might be forced to achieve it through calling early elections. At best, this solution would take Romania off the track of concentrating on achieving its obligations toward meeting EU conditions for becoming a member in 2007 and would again over-politicize the country. At worst, it might constitute a temptation for the new government to indulge in the sins of its predecessor. That would be a real setback for democratic consolidation.

Monica Ciobanu recently received her Ph.D. from the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, New School University, New York; Michael Shafir was editor of "RFE/RL East European Perspectives" and European Affairs Coordinator , RFE/RL Online Journalism.


"Adevarul" (http://www., 2004-2005.

BBC World News, 2004.

Blondel, J., 1973, Comparing Political Systems (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson).

Carey, H. F., 2004, "Conclusion: Ambiguous Democratization?," in Henry F. Carey (ed.), Romania since 1989: Politics, Economics and Society (Lanham: Lexington Books), pp. 553-618.

Ciobanu, M., 2003, "Problems of Democratic Consolidation in Eastern Europe: the Case of Romania in Comparative Perspective," in "RFE/RL East European Perspectives," Vol. 5, Nos. 16 and 17.

Ciobanu, M., 2004, "Democratic Legitimacy and the Party System in Romania: From Polarized Pluralism to Catch-All Strategy," paper presented at the Ninth Annual Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities, Columbia University, New York, April.

Ciobanu, M., 2005, "Political Parties in Romania: a Pre-Electoral Analysis," in "Analysis of Current Events," Baylor University, Texas (forthcoming).

Coalition for a Clean Parliament, 2004, (

"Cotidianul" (, 2005.

"Curentul" (, 2005.

"Dilema veche" (, 2005.

"Jurnalul national" (, 2004.

Mediafax (Bucharest), 2004-2005.

Kirchheimer, O., 1990, "The Catch-All Party," in Peter Mair (ed.), The West European Party System (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 50-60.

Radu, A., 2003, Partidele politice romanesti dupa 1989 [The Romanian Political Parties After 1989] (Bucharest: Paideia).

"RFE/RL Newsline," 2004-2005.

Romanian Academic Society, 2004, "Elections Prove the Rule of Law still a Distant Goal in Romania," in "Crisis Report Series," no. 12, December (

Sartori, G., 1979, Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis ( Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 1979.

Shafir, M., 1985, Romania: Politics, Economics and Society. Political Stagnation and Simulated Change (London:Frances Pinter).

Shafir, M., 2000a, "Miscarile xenofobe si dilemele 'includerii' si 'excluderii': Cazul minoritatii maghiare din Romania," [Xenophobic Movements and the Dilemmas of 'Inclusion' and 'Exclusion'; The Case of Romania's Hungarian Minority] in "Altera" (Targu-Mures), no. 15, pp. 159-180.

Shafir, M., 2000b, "The Political Party as National Holding Company: The Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania," in Jonathan Stein (ed.), The Politics of National Minority Participation in Post-Communist Europe: State-Building, Democracy and Ethnic Mobilization (Armonk, N.Y.: East-West Institute and M.E. Sarpe), pp. 101-128.

Shafir, M., 2001a, "The Ciorbea Government and Democratization: A Preliminary Assessment" in Duncan Light, David Phinnemore (eds.), Post-Communist Romania: Coming to Terms with Transition (Houndsmills: Palgrave), pp. 79-103.

Shafir, M., 2001b, "The Greater Romania Party and the 2000 Elections in Romania: How Obvious is the Obvious?" in "Romanian Journal of Society and Politics," Vol. 1, No. 2, November, pp. 91-126.

Shafir, M., 2004a, "Elections: A Slap in the Face of Romania's Ruling Party," in "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 June.

Shafir, M. 2004b, "New Romanian Cabinet Ushers In Liberal-Democratic Spirit," 29 December (

Shafir, M., 2004c "Romania's Presidential Runoff Produces Possible 'Cohabitation' Scenario," 13 December (

Shafir, M., 2004d "Testing Romania's Constitution," 16 December (

Voicu, G., Pluripartidismul: O teorie a democratiei [ Multiparty Systems: A Democratic Theory] (Bucharest: All), 1998.

"Ziua" (, 2005.