BY MICHAEL BIRD AND STEFAN CANDEA
BUCHAREST - Clientism, nepotism and corruption scandals among Romanian MEPs are set to contribute to a predicted record low turnout for the nation’s European elections.
Romania’s leading parties are drawing up lists of MEP candidates which, with some exceptions, provide a route for the relatives, friends and spouses of the Bucharest political elite to secure a cushy job in the west.
Current MEPs likely to be re-elected include Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s wife Daciana Sarbu, the National Liberal Party (PNL) President Crin Antonescu’s wife Adina Valean and, possibly, Romanian President Traian Basescu’s daughter Elena.
Other MEPs include ex-Presidential candidates, former ministers and councillors who have declared loyalty to their leaders.
“Eligible positions on the lists are given as rewards to old, deserving soldiers of the party or [are considered] just as another resource that should be kept in the family,” says Claudiu Tufis, professor at the School of Political Science, Bucharest.
There have been two major scandals from among the MEPs who were elected in 2009.
George Becali, now ex-MEP, the financier of the Steaua Bucharest football club who made millions in shady deals with government entities, represented the extremist Greater Romania Party as an MEP, with the hope that this would shield him from ongoing criminal investigations.
He later switched parties to join the more influential National Liberal Party, winning a seat in the Romanian Parliament at the end of 2012.
During this time he was indicted for offering huge bribes, using fake documents and ordering his bodyguards to kidnap thieves who had stolen his limousine.
Becali is now spending three-and-a-half years in jail.
Meanwhile, Social Democrat MEP Adrian Severin was caught on camera by a Sunday Times journalist accepting cash for influence in 2011. Although he resigned from his party, he continues to work as a MEP. At the end of last year he was indicted by the Romanian National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) and his case is pending in court.
Another MEP who was also exposed by the British newspaper for accepting cash was Slovenian Zoran Thaler. He resigned and last month he was sentenced to over two years in prison in his home country.
The difference in behaviour between Slovenia and Romania is a “telling indicator” of the interest in such issues at a national and European community level, says Tufis.
“For the Slovenians and their political class it was a stain and they pushed to solve it,” he says. “Not for Romanians, where [members of] Severin’s PSD party actually defended him.”
Severin’s retention of his MEP seat shows the extent to which Romanian society and its political class tolerates corruption.
Romania’s political class has been hit by a wave of corruption indictments, trials and convictions in the lead-up to this year's European elections in May and the election of a new President in November.
More high profile politicians are being imprisoned for corruption.
In January former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, who was previously convicted of corruption, was found guilty of blackmail and of taking bribes. He was sentenced to four years in jail.
Although locking up politicians may appease a European Commission hungry to see Romania’s high level corruption punished, analysts fear this is not a golden age of transparency and justice in Romanian public life.
Tufis sees the imprisonment of ex-ministers such as Nastase as “only ammunition for the current partisan wars” between opposing political elites.
Meanwhile Ionut Tata, president of democracy watchdog and electoral observers Pro-Democracy Association (ApD), is sceptical that this will usher in a new generation of honest public representatives.
“The young politicians are still corrupt,” he says, “because they joined the youth wing of the parties ten years ago when corruption was a growing thing and some of them are attracted by corruption.”
This was clear last year when the Romanian Parliament tried to insure itself against further scrutiny.
In December it attempted to pass a law providing its members with immunity from corruption investigations – a move condemned by the EU and the US as a step back to Romania’s dark ages, when politicians were unaccountable.
Many of the new politically-engaged generation are put off joining parties due to their legacy of corruption and instead become members of civil society or teach in universities.
And this lack of an alternative to the political classes engenders cynicism amongst the population at election time.
“There is absolutely nothing on offer that people might find attractive,” says Tufis. “Parties keep on recycling old politicians, and the new ones are just copies of the old ones.”
Absenteeism 'to return with a vengeance'
The perception of clientism and corruption is likely to contribute to a lack of political engagement by voters.
Romania is among the EU’s new member states which suffer from the highest degree of absenteeism at European elections.
In 2009, 27.4 percent of Romanians voted in European elections – the lowest after Slovakia (19.6 percent), Lithuania (20.9 percent) and Poland (24.5 percent) – compared to a European average of 43 percent.
“Absenteeism will return with a vengeance in the European elections of 2014 and will be stronger than ever,” predicts Tata.
The Romanian population do not feel that their choice of MEP will impact on their lives.
“[Electing an MEP] is not going to produce a rise in income or a decrease in unemployment,” says Tata. “The choice is almost irrelevant, unlike the election of a President or a Mayor, where you see these representatives doing something.”
He argues that Romanian MEPs do not act as the “national football team” when it comes to representing the country’s interests in the European parliament.
Instead they vote with their political families on various issues: the Liberals with Alde, the Democratic Liberals with the EPP and the Social Democrats with the Socialists and Democrats.
Another problem that has risen in Romania in the past five years is euroscepticism.
The country remains one of the most pro-EU members of the bloc, but politicians are now using rhetoric which distances them from Brussels, especially on issues related to anti-corruption and judicial independence.
Nevertheless, when it comes to European issues there are few bones of contention between the main political parties – every party is pro-Europe and therefore there is little difference in policy from one party to the next.
This also contributes to low voter turnout.
The major parties like it this way – nomination on a party list is a sure way to an MEP seat.
“Limited participation gives an advantage to large parties who have a higher capacity to mobilise their base,” says Remus Stefureac, director of polling company INSCOP.
Far-right's 'traditional issues' dealt with by mainstream parties
Romania’s leading coalition has split in the run-up to the European elections.
In February, the Government’s junior partner, the National Liberal Party (PNL), withdrew its ministers from the cabinet in a bust-up between the Social Democrat Prime Minister Ponta and PNL president Crin Antonescu.
The Social Democrats have chosen to run candidates in the European elections, not with the PNL, but instead in coalition with a leftist and a tiny conservative party, under the banner of the Social Democratic Union (USD). The Conservative Party is seen as accepted in this coalition because the financier of the party oversees an influential media empire.
On paper, the Romanian political landscape faces a united left-wing force, which is set to gain around 39 percent of the vote, according to polling by INSCOP in January.
Meanwhile there are six right-wing parties who are polling over 30 percent of the electorate. They are headed by the National Liberal Party (PNL) at 20.1 percent and the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) on 17.5 percent.
From the other parties, only the Greater Romania Party (PRM) has adopted a vocal line against minorities such as Hungarians, Jews and the Roma. The party won three of 34 seats in the 2009 European elections.
But the PRM is haemorrhaging supporters and is unlikely to pass the required five percent threshold.
“Far-right parties have failed to gain any traction because their ‘traditional’ issues are part of the active issues in most of the main parties,” says Tufis.
No major Romanian party has adopted a socially liberal line on any political issue.
“I have yet to see a Romanian political party that will come out and say they support LGBT,” says Tufis, “or a political party that comes out and supports a clear separation between the state and the church or a political party whose politicians do not use ethnicity for their own advantage.”
In the last eighty years Romania has moved from a multi-ethnic to a more monocultural society, partly due to Government policies during the Fascist and Communist regimes.
By 2011, the ethnic Romanian population had increased from 72 percent to 89 percent, while the country has not seen any major inflow of citizens from a foreign country or ethnicity.
The majority of Romanian society has a culture of deep-rooted racism and homophobia.
Three quarters of Romanians would not vote for an MEP who is physically disabled, a Hungarian or a Roma, according to a CNCD survey in December 2013. Meanwhile 81 percent are against an MEP of another sexual orientation.
“A far-right party will become relevant for Romania when incoming migration becomes an issue,” argues Tufis. “Until then, its job is done by the existing political parties.”
Romanian voters will elect 32 MEPs to the 751-strong European Parliament on 25 May.
Michael Bird and Stefan Candea are members of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism.