Monday, December 14, 2009
Against all odds
Romania's presidential election
Dec 10th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Traian Basescu wins a tight but mucky race. Now he must keep his promises
IT SEEMED like a safe bet. Mircea Geoana, the centre-left challenger in Romania’s presidential election, had the money, media and political backing that he needed to win. Sleek and Western-educated, he portrayed himself as the safe consensus candidate against Traian Basescu, the lively but exasperating former sea-captain (and once mayor of Bucharest) who has been the country’s president since 2004.
For a few hours on December 6th it even appeared to have paid off. Exit polls gave Mr Geoana a narrow victory. He did win inside the country by 14,738 votes. But Romanians abroad cast 146,876 votes and Mr Basescu took 78% of them. The campaign was exceptionally dirty: observers think that both sides cheated. Mr Basescu’s victory against largely hostile news coverage was impressive. Mr Geoana wants a rerun, but his support is dwindling. His Liberal allies now hope to form a government with Mr Basescu’s centre-right Democrats.
Mr Basescu’s record is mixed. Elected on an anti-corruption ticket, he has kept up pressure on the country’s endemic sleaze, but selectively. Supporters who once saw him as the apostle of clean government now regard him merely as the lesser of two evils. Critics make fun of his private life, colourful even by local standards. An impulsive and abrasive manner too often curbs his effectiveness.
On foreign policy, he has been a stalwart Atlanticist and strong critic of Russian mischief-making. But his interventions in neighbouring Moldova, an ex-Soviet republic that some see as a lost Romanian province, have been counterproductive. Mr Basescu backed the issuing of Romanian passports to Moldovans (just the sort of thing Russia does in its former empire). That brought him some 90 % of the votes cast there (a handy 8,000). But his near-irredentist stance dismays those who want to stabilise Moldova, not undermine it. Europe’s poorest country, Moldova faces another year of political limbo after its parliament yet again failed this week to elect a new president.
Mr Geoana, a former foreign minister, took a more conciliatory stance. Too much so, some feared: a private visit to Moscow earlier this year, revealed during the campaign, raised fears about the loyalties of some of his ex-communist backers. His other big weakness was ties with the tycoons who dominate Romania’s big business and media.
Outsiders are hoping for a stable government able to work with Mr Basescu and pass a budget for 2010, the top priority. The IMF has delayed the next tranche of a €20 billion ($30 billion) loan until the parliament agrees to a budget deficit no bigger than 5.9 % of GDP. Mr Basescu has pledged a crackdown on the public finances. Sorin Ionita from the Academic Romanian Society, a Bucharest think-tank, says that many bankruptcies, especially among firms doing business with the state, were postponed this year, pending the election. Many of Mr Geoana’s backers owed the state money in taxes.
Romanians want to believe in Mr Basescu. But his failure to follow through on his fine ideas makes them wary. His win owes less to his record than to voters’ wishes to see him honour past promises.