The Irish Times
Wed, Apr 14, 2010
BUCHAREST LETTER: Does the no-nonsense Victor Ponta have the political nous to revive the struggling PSD asks DANIEL McLAUGHLIN
THESE ARE turbulent times for the Social Democrats, the party that dominated Romania’s politics for the first 15 years of its post-communist history.
Ousted in 2004, the party was poised for a return to power last December, when polls suggested its leader, Mircea Geoana, would beat incumbent Traian Basescu in a presidential election.
Not only did Geoana snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, however, but he proceeded to invite ridicule upon himself and his party by claiming that he had lost the ballot after being attacked with “negative energy” by a parapsychologist employed by the wily Basescu.
This occult assault wrecked his concentration during a televised debate, he complained, and was part of a strategy by his rival’s election team to harness the mystical “power of the purple flame” by wearing purple ties, socks and other accoutrements on certain important days.
Geoana is no naive simpleton – he was Romania’s foreign minister for four years after serving as ambassador to Washington – but his bizarre rant revealed not only the power of superstition in Romanian life, but the parlous state into which the Social Democrats have slipped.
Despite his humiliation, Geoana was expected to retain the leadership of the Social Democrats, or PSD, at its congress in February. Three witches who attended the gathering to banish the malevolent purple flame confidently predicted his victory.
In the event he lost to Victor Ponta (37), a man who by his own admission is “annoyingly young” to lead a party packed with big political beasts and haunted by the ghosts of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist Party, from whose ruins it rose after the 1989 revolution.
Geoana conceded this defeat graciously and without reference to witchcraft, and perhaps even with a sigh of relief that someone else would have the job of repairing the PSD and trying to rid it of a well-earned reputation for cronyism and corruption.
“Voting for me over the incumbent leader was a radical change, voting for a 37-year-old was a radical change, and choosing someone with a background as a prosecutor was a radical change,” says Ponta.
“The party needed hope, and perhaps it’s easier for a young person with an absolutely clean background to deliver that. These are bad times for the PSD – but also a great opportunity.”
Ponta’s youth, energy and ready laughter do bounce a little uneasily around the dowdy old Bucharest villa that is PSD headquarters.
An avid basketball player and the current champion co-driver in the Romanian rally championship, Ponta is certainly full of vigour. But many Romanians wonder whether he has the political nous to revive the PSD and survive its Byzantine power struggles.
A stream of disaffected MPs is drifting out of the party and into a new independent bloc that is open to co-operation with the centre-right government of Basescu’s allies.
The PSD’s dismal reputation as the party of graft has also dogged Ponta’s first weeks at the helm, with parliament voting to allow the arrest of a senator on corruption charges. Catalin Voicu of the PSD is now in jail awaiting trial for influence peddling and fraud, in a case that has also snared a supreme court judge and a pair of prominent businessmen.
“This was a chance for the new party leadership to prove that it was different,” says Ponta.
“Before, the PSD acted to protect its own people, but party experts told me that this was a serious case and should go before a judge. The PSD is not a shield for Mr Voicu – I suspended him from the party and he will have to face the accusations.”
The Voicu case has offered Romanians a distraction from the economic crisis that forced the country to seek a €20 billion loan from the EU and International Monetary Fund, in return for a pledge to implement deep and unpopular costcutting measures.
Faced with the constant danger of crippling strikes by redundancy-threatened workers, the government has done little to restructure an economy that grew rapidly thanks to a credit and property bubble before crashing heavily last year.
“The government is spending the international loan money to postpone the painful decisions that should have been taken. They are using anaesthetic on the patient but do not have the courage to perform surgery,” says Ponta, who wants to overhaul Romania’s tax system and empower its regions to spend billions of euro in EU aid that the cumbersome central government is not using.
Ponta is expected to run in the next presidential election, earmarked for 2014. If he loses, he will not blame “negative energy” or the “purple flame”.
“That was the most ridiculous way to accept defeat,” he says.