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Romania's December 9 parliamentary elections: actors, context, stakes

de Editorial staff
Vineri, 7 decembrie 2012, 19:04 English | Top News

Some 18.2 million Romanian voters are expected to cast their ballots in parliamentary elections on December 9. The poll is a key moment in a political storm pitching the governing alliance of Social Democrats and Liberals (USL) against President Traian Basescu over the past seven months, a storm which sparked rising Western criticism of Romania's compliance with the rule of law and European values and amplified the stakes for the economic, political and international future of the country.

The main political forces battling for the votes of the people this Sunday are:
  • the Social Liberal Union (USL), the governing coalition formed by incumbent PM Victor Ponta's Social Democrats (PSD) and incumbent Senate speaker Crin Antonescu's National Liberal Party-Conservative Party group. USL is seen as favorite in the polls, with questions remaining about the eventual value of their majority presence in the Parliament
  • the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) - who have supported President Traian through most of his past eight years in office, but who lost government to the USL this spring - and their allies in the recently formed Right Romania Alliance (ARD), bringing together PDL and several other minor political groups.
  • the populist Dan Diaconescu Popular Party (PPDD) run by TV showman turned politician Dan Diaconescu, who came to prominence with his outrageous tabloid TV shows on his on TV station.
  • the Hungarian Democrats (UDMR), representing much of the ethnic minority in Romania, facing for the first time another ethnic Hungarian political group, the National Council of Hungarians in Transylvania - CNMT, supported by Laszlo Tokes. It is the first time when this split of forces could result in ethnic Hungarians' representatives failing to enter Parliament.

Thousands of candidates are battling across the country for about 500 seats in the House of Deputies and the Senate (the number depends on the post-vote re-distribution of terms). That comes despite Romanians opted in a referendum in 2007 for a narrower, more focused Parliament of only 300 members.

The vote comes at the end of a month of political campaigning which was lackluster in debates and ideas about economic and political reform, but focused mostly on the lasting political struggle between the USL alliance and President Basescu. Basescu's supporters in PDL/ARD were mostly absent in the campaign, raising question marks among observers about a possible hidden agreement with USL. The President himself did not exclude the possibility of local-level agreements between USL and PDL/ARD.

Basescu was the most prominent opponent of the USL during the electoral campaign, with several interventions in the process in which he questioned the necessity of naming Victor Ponta as prime minister, should USL win the elections. On the other hand, the main message of USL was not about economy, but against Traian Basescu.

The political discourse was harsh for both USL and Basescu, with USL leaders threatening a new impeachment procedure against the head of state, should he refuse to name Ponta as PM or USL as the governing alliance. Meanwhile, Basescu went from pointing to major fractures in Romania's domestic and international development and the USL's breaching the rule of law to calling Ponta a "kitty" and a "liar".

  • The first to talk about the possibility to suspend Basescu this time around was Dan Voiculescu, a dominating figure of the USL who had also pushed for the impeachment of the President in 2007 as well as in summer 2012.

Basescu vs. USL and questions about the rule of law in Romania

The parliamentary elections come at the end of a stormy political year when:
  • The USL alliance replaced PDL as the governing force in spring, after years in the opposition. The USL alliance - which Basescu and his supporters say is in fact dominated by the interests of influential businessman and media owner Dan Voiculescu, a former member of Ceausescu-era Securitate, has immediately launched attacks on the President - the executive power turning against the presidential power
  • The USL proclaimed victory in the local elections in early June. With a strong backing from the population, and with new supporters drawn from PDL and other parliamentary groups, it shortly declared itself as Romanians' choice to rule the country - the executive power claiming a stake on parliamentary power
  • The USL - prominent representatives of  which were risking or had already received sentences for acts of corruption - shortly launched a series of moves to dismiss key people and replace others in key institutions of the state, thus allowing a procedure to impeach the President. The impeachment brought Romania to a standstill throughout the summer, drew harsh, high-level European and US criticism about breaches to the rule of law and impeded necessary measures to help the struggling economy - the executive power eyeing the judicial power
  • President Basescu kept his office eventually, helped by a lower than necessary turnout at the referendum called by the USL to dismiss him. But since then, USL and the government kept making decisions and moves about institutions of the judiciary and other key bodies of the state, prompting Basescu, his supporters and international officials and bodies to maintain harsh criticism about the non-compliance with the rule of law in Romania and the country's commitments to Western values.
  • Criticism reached a milestone moment on Thursday before the elections, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned Romania and Hungary along non-EU countries such as Belarus, Russia and other former Soviet republics as countries where the democratic process is facing problems.

December 9 elections - what to look for

With President Basescu and his PDL supporters cornered after years of austerity measures, but also of discriminate use of state funds by former PDL ministers, USL is seen poised to win the parliamentary elections. But President Basescu is the one to nominate a prime minister, which has to be validated by the Parliament. The nominated PM has to be from among the winning party or, it there's no majority, following talks with political groups. If the Parliament rejects the President's nomination twice, the President can call for a new round of elections.

In this year's specific case, the USL threatens it would suspend the President unless he nominates the proper prime-ministerial candidate - and with President Basescu suspended, USL leader, Senate speaker Crin Antonescu would take over as interim head of state and can make the nomination himself.

But the results of the elections and what is to come still depend on several factors, such as bad weather announced throughout Romania for the weekend, which may lead to a lower turnout unfavorable for the USL; and the historically lower and lower turnout in Romanian parliamentary elections over the past 20 years, from more than 75% in 1992 to below 40% in 2008.

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