Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Romanian lawmaker seeks EU parliament despite ban

6/9/2009, 1:07 p.m. ET
The Associated Press

(AP) — BUCHAREST, Romania - Romanian nationalist politician Gigi Becali has gone from a prison cell to a seat in the European Parliament in less than two months.

But his European Union career looked uncertain Tuesday after a Romanian court upheld a travel ban on the flamboyant, religious politician, pending a criminal investigation into kidnapping charges.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Becali, 50, vowed to stage "the mother of all shows" and travel to Brussels to take his seat for the nationalist Greater Romania Party whatever the outcome of the court ruling.

"They should come to arrest me from there," he said.

Becali, who also owns Steaua football club, counts former U.S President Ronald Reagan as his political idol. He is awaiting a court appeal in the coming days after the European elections have been validated.

Thanks partly to his popularity, the far-right Greater Romania Party did well in the EU election, winning two of Romania's 33 seats in the 736-seat parliament. Last year the party was voted out of the Romanian parliament.

"He is seen as a sort of Robin Hood," said political analyst Stelian Tanase. "The man who built churches was arrested and people saw him as a victim of the system."

Becali has been one of Romania's most colorful public figures of the last decade. Yet his fortunes began to wane after the popular Steaua club underperformed in the 2008 Champions League and his New Generation Party failed to get into Romania's parliament in 2008.

He regained his popularity after he was arrested and charged with kidnapping three men who had stolen his car. His announcement to run for the European Parliament for the Greater Romania Party came during his two weeks in prison. He was released, and authorities banned him from traveling outside Romania.

"When I was in prison, I thought if an injustice was made to Christ, why should there be no injustice done to me, a nobody? This thought gave me the strength to handle prison," he said in interview in his palace.

A former shepherd who has built churches, Becali says his life is guided by Christian values and he is known for his donations to flood victims and others in need.

He denies having the xenophobic tendencies of far-right parties.

"I receive requests for help from Hungarians, Gypsies. For me, when a person is ill, I give help, out of compassion, whether that being is Hungarian, Gypsy, African or Arab," he said. "It's not about Romanian compassion, but about human compassion."

Critics say his fiery temperament and outbursts on live television don't mesh with the sobriety expected from a politician.

But he counters: "I am not a typical politician, I cannot lie," while admitting he does not always control his outbursts.

Becali made his fortune in real estate and says the global downturn has eaten up 60 percent of his wealth. Even so he claims to be worth ?800 million ($1.12 billion).

His politics are strictly conservative: He calls homosexuality and smoking "a sin,' and is fervently pro-family.

When he gets to Brussels, Becali wants to work in a committee that provides for the poor and underprivileged.

"Rich people should go into politics. I believe politics means sacrificing for others," he said.

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