Saturday, October 18, 2008

ROMANIA: Election Fever Sparks Labour Unrest

By Claudia Ciobanu

BUCHAREST, Oct 17 (IPS) - Just weeks before general elections, Romanian legislators have approved drastic increases in teachers' wages, causing massive protests from state employees around the country looking for similar benefits.

Elections are scheduled Nov. 30. According to a recent opinion poll by national polling agency Insomar, the centre-right Democrat-Liberal Party (PDL) enjoys 38 percent support, with the governing centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) at 16 percent and the main opposition force, the Social-Democrats (PSD) 26 percent.

PDL was a coalition partner of PNL but quit the government in March 2007 after a period of conflict between Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu (PNL) and President Traian Basescu (from PDL). The country is currently led by a minority government made up of PNL and a smaller party, the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR).

On Sep. 30, the lower house of the Romanian parliament unanimously endorsed a PSD amendment for a 50 percent increase in the salaries of teachers and professors. President Traian Basescu announced at the time that he would promulgate the ordinance.

Before this vote, the government had promised a 9 percent salary increase for education staff effective Oct. 1.

While education staff certainly welcomed the decision of the parliament, other state employees argued they are being discriminated against, and called for similar wage increases.

On Oct. 7, more than 15,000 employees belonging to the country's four main trade unions participated in a rally in Constitutional Square in capital Bucharest, calling for higher wages and an end to discrimination among professional groups on the state payroll.

Dumitru Costin from the trade union National Syndicates Block (BNS) said one of the goals of the rally was to show that workers "live in this country every day, not just in the days preceding elections, when politicians rush to bribe people with beer and meatballs." Costin said the government must stop taking measures which divide labour.

Medics, journalists and bureaucrats are some of the groups asking for a pay rise.

Minister for the economy Varujan Vosganian (PNL) has said that a pay rise across the board "could lead to an economic crisis, given that such money does not exist at the moment." He said the budget deficit caused by such massive wage rises could jeopardise the country's plan to join the euro-zone in 2014.

Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu also spoke against 50 percent increases, arguing that the parliament vote was an act of "super-populism". Asked why the PNL parliamentarians (members of his own party) endorsed the measure, the prime minister replied that the vote was "a mistake" and "we should put it behind us now."

On Oct. 7, Popescu-Tariceanu removed education minister Cristian Adomnitei (PNL) from his position, accusing him of acting irresponsibly in supporting the 50 percent increase. The government appealed against the ordinance voted by parliament before the Constitutional Court, but the court declared the wage increases legal.

Faced with the politicians' change of mind, teachers are threatening massive strikes.

The Spiru Haret National Union of Education Staff has filed a legal complaint against Cristian Adomnitei, whom they accuse of "misinforming public opinion" and "instigating the other socio-professional categories against the educational staff." The union has also called for prosecution of the prime minister and the minister for the economy on similar charges.

"Yes, parliament voted to increase our salaries, but it was all a show," says primary school teacher Dana Ganeat from Bucharest. "It is normal that all the other workers are asking for the same thing. This country is ruled by a general mess and I personally am disgusted with all the politicians, who are simply making fun of the people."

Political scientist Adrian Mosneag from the Bucharest-based political consultancy firm Fresh Mint Political Communication explains the reasoning of the Romanian parties beyond this apparent "general mess". Mosneag says PNL had successfully used last-minute social benefits before the November 2007 elections for the European Parliament. PNL was hoping to achieve a similar effect now, he said.

"Doubling pensions just a few months before the Euro-elections helped PNL win 13 percent of the vote, 5 percent of which came from pensioners, especially from rural areas," Mosneag told IPS. "And this in spite of the fact that PNL had been considered until then a right, elitist party, normally endorsed by urban, highly-educated segments of the population.

"As 2008 general elections were approaching, PNL started a new campaign of increasing pensions and salaries. The only large left party in Romania, PSD, supported this spiral of electoral giveaways, and it further pressured the government to increase pensions sooner and increase wages of teachers by 50 percent. PDL joined this spiral too."

Mosneag says it is difficult to predict who will lose the most from this crisis because of the "extraordinary unpredictability of the Romanian political system", but that "PSD is probably the best placed because its leftist messages are better targeted in this period."

PDL could have gained most from the conflict for staying out of it, but "the party still suffers from serious faults of communication and tactical positioning" which will prevent it from making significant gains, says Mosneag. PDL derives much of its support from the popularity of President Traian Basescu, but Basescu's ratings have been dropping over the last months.

PDL might get a weaker result than opinion polls predict because of the new electoral system being implemented for the first time in Romania. The country is switching from proportional representation to a mixed system of first-past-the-post and proportional. Mosneag says "the version adopted is not the one proposed by Basescu, and the electoral colleges have been drawn by a parliament in which the majority of seats are held by PSD and PNL. Therefore it is these parties that will benefit from the new college structure."

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