Is there any resemblance between Klaus Iohannis and Traian Băsescu? No, there isn’t. It is difficult to find two more different people. However, the ways in which they have trodden their presidential paths are starting to look alike to a great extent. Very worrying!
Why worrying? Because Traian Băsescu failed to reach most of his proposed targets. He decisively changed the strategic direction of the country towards the west (without half measures, without duplicity, as Iliescu had started) and he began the fight against corruption. These are his most important achievements and they are worth mentioning. However, at the end of his term, he left Romania still far from the desired stage of development and modernization. Klaus Iohannis is facing the same risk today.
It’s partly because of them. It is partly due to cataclysmic events that have turned the planet upside down. But the resemblance so far, perhaps in what will follow too, is, first of all, the result of the colossal pressure exerted by the centres of power that have dominated Romania for over 70 years and which are fighting hard to keep their privileges and control over the state and economy.
However, we are not in a dead end. We were not in a dead end in 2010 either. Is the situation difficult? Yes. Very difficult, really. But not impossible!
There are some very important things that Traian Băsescu did not do ten years ago, which cost him dearly. Which cost us all dearly. And which Klaus Iohannis has to do, if he does not want to see, in his turn, in five years, that he has failed to provide the decisive impetus so that the process of fundamentally changing the state and unleashing the potential for development of the nation become irreversible.
Băsescu missed many of the objectives of his first term, because for a long span of the 2004-2009 period, the executive and the legislative power were in the hands of his opponents, Călin Popescu Tăriceanu and Mircea Geoană. Two leaders who did not do, concretely, anything important for the modernization of Romania. On the contrary, the legacy of their common government still hangs, like a millstone, from the neck of the country.
The same happened to Klaus Iohannis. In 2015, the government was in Ponta’s hands, between the end of 2016 and 2019 in Dragnea’s and Tariceanu’s hands. So was the Parliament. The president had a partner government only for a year. In 2016, during Cioloș’s term.
The 2009 elections were won by Băsescu. The colossal propaganda effort mounted by Voiculescu, Vântu and Patriciu, seconded by the cohort of barons scared by the first results of the anti-corruption fight, raised a huge wave of hatred against the former president. Over five million people angrily put the stamp, in the final round, on the name of his opponent, who had just got out of Vântu’s jacuzzi.
However, in February 2010, Traian Băsescu’s level of confidence recovered dramatically. It almost doubled compared to December, reaching around 50%. After re-enthronement, many of his fierce enemies changed their attitude. After a few weeks during which he had been accused of stealing the elections from the diaspora, when it was clear that the Vanghelie – Voicu group’s attempt to cancel the election failed, Antena 3 and Realitatea suddenly stopped, as if given a sign, any attack against him. It may seem incredible today, but for almost six months the TV inquisitions suspended their activity.
After his victory in extremis against Geoana, followed by the paralysis of PSD and after regaining the confidence, March 2010 witnessed Traian Băsescu celebrating another success, which propelled him to the height of his strength: gaining control over a parliamentary majority, with the help of a corrupted motley crew of political mercenaries who would form, a few months later, the National Union for the Progress of Romania.
The president had every reason to look optimistically at the five years in office that lay ahead of him. He and his party had finally received the parliamentary majority they could rely on to pass their desired laws. A long-awaited victory after the failure to organize early elections, in 2005, and after the liberals who moved to the PD failed to overturn Tariceanu.
Moreover, the Prosecutor’s Offices, led by DNA, had started to function, the SCM was about to become independent of the influence of Lupașcu and the other dinosaurs in the judiciary, the resistance of the corrupt judges at the High Court was to be defeated (the Voicu-Costiniu network only had a few days of life left), and the media trusts of the three moguls, who had been pestering him for five years, were paying for the pots broken by their masters and kissing his ring.
Supported by Gabriel Oprea – „national interest,” Traian Băsescu also managed to harness the disciplinary battalion composed of Micky Șpagă, Eugen Nicolicea, Culiță Tărâță and many other penitents in the fight against corruption. They even voted with great enthusiasm the law of the „small reform in the judiciary,” the missing piece of the mechanism that enabled the wave of convictions for corruption in the coming years.
And yet, on the evening of May 6, 2010, Traian Băsescu’s plans collapsed. It was the evening when he announced the cut, by 25%, of salaries in the public system and by 15% of pensions and unemployment benefits. It was the evening when his political rating collapsed more dramatically than, perhaps, that of any other Romanian politician, ever. It was the evening when the PSD leaders and the moguls he had cruelly humiliated only a few months before uncorked the champagne bottles. Because they instantly understood what was to come: Traian Băsescu will never really recover.
There followed months on end of protests fueled by the manipulations of the televisions that had returned to the routine of demonizing the president and the prime minister. The PSD-trade unions cooperative, but also Sorin Ovidiu Vântu’s relationship with the union leaders on his payroll fully demonstrated their efficiency.
Teachers, pensioners, nurses, students, farmers and many others did not miss the opportunity to take to the streets and accuse Băsescu of destroying their lives. Obviously, none of them uttered the names of Geoana and Tariceanu – the puppets of the moguls, the protégés of their television stations and the biggest culprits for the economic disaster that led to the cutting of public sector salaries and pensions.
When thousands of policemen marched towards the Cotroceni Palace and shouted „Basescu to prison!” and „Get out, you ordinary bastard!”, in September 2010, the president’s confidence level had already sunk to an abysmal 10% and the prime minister’s to 8%. Predictably, PSD and PNL were then talking about only two things: early elections, as soon as possible and the suspension of the president. They were eager to capitalize on the blows received by the PDL, which was not able to get more than 10% in polls, but especially the fact that 65% of Romanians wanted to suspend the president.
And probably this would have happened, we would have even had the „impossible” early elections, if the key institutions of the state had not stayed with the president. Traian Băsescu remained in office, PDL kept the government for another two years, but none of them managed to acomplish much of what they had set out to do regarding the modernization of the state. For example, the attempt to reorganize the country from the administrative point of view, so as to reduce the number of counties, from 41 to 8. Băsescu’s proposal drove Ion Iliescu crazy. The latter made a statement from the cycle “You, animal! ”: “Băsescu got into what doctors call “delirum tremens”… It is something that not even Ceausescu would have done in this way… It is an irresponsible decision! ”
In the end, their efforts focused exclusively on recovering as much of the lost trust capital as possible, so that the 2012 elections would not completely remove them from the political stage. Unfortunately for them, being booed in the street, crucified on TV, harassed in Parliament and especially crushed by internal struggles, they lost power just before the 2012 parliamentary elections. The attempt to dismiss Raef Arafat sparked a series of street protests in January 2012, minor as compared to those of 2010, but successful. The reason? They enjoyed the support of state institutions that decided that the president was weak enough to try to subordinate him. Which, for the most part, they did.
Where are we today? In May 2010.
Three months ago, just like Băsescu ten years ago, Klaus Iohannis held all the institutional cards in his hand (even the CCR was signaling that it wanted to avoid conflicts with the president in the future). But he also had something else. Unlike his predecessor, he also had an almost certain prospect that he would definitely defeat PSD and its satellites, maybe even UDMR, in the next elections.
Despite the initial tumbling blocks and the chorus of skeptics, it was quite likely that the plan to trigger early elections would have worked out. Which meant that he would have obtained, if he had not hit the COVID 19 meteorite, much more than Băsescu managed to get in March 2010 by recruiting the corrupt battalion led by Gabriel Oprea. He was quite close to installing in Parliament, at the beginning of the summer, a comfortable right-wing majority, dominated by the PNL, ready to be with him for four years and support him to achieve the proposed targets.
Today, Klaus Iohannis has lost many of the trump cards he had at the beginning of the year. PNL has eroded rapidly, because in times of major crises all mistakes, small and large, are more costly. PSD has recovered to a great extent, because in times of major crises it is much more profitable to be on the sidelines and focus on crying foul at the mistakes of those in power. The prospect of early parliamentary elections has evaporated and it is possible that local elections will be held only next year. Which means a major risk for PNL to lose even more percentage points, and PSD to get even closer to its shape in the good old days.
Even if Romania’s honorable exit from the COVID 19 crisis will help the PNL to win, in the end, the parliamentary elections, the score it will get, but also the score that PSD will get, will have an enormous influence on Klaus Iohannis’ plans. . A relatively small margin between the two parties will mean that the president will rely on a fragile majority in Parliament.
The consequence: the attempts to launch a major state reform and the destruction of cross-party networks that block the country’s development and modernization would get bogged down in endless parliamentary debates and political guerrilla struggles, as happened in 2010 and 2011.
Most likely, the PNL will not have to take dramatic measures such as the salary and pension cuts announced by Traian Băsescu. Therefore, the risk of sinking like PDL is low. But a relatively good score will not be enough for them to gain enough power in Parliament and the local structures to deliver what the president has been promising for years: the decisive change. And it will be difficult for the Liberals to get more than an honorable score, if things go in the current direction and at the current pace. For five reasons:
I have already mentioned the first: accelerated erosion, caused by the huge challenge of the pandemic, but also by their own mistakes. Ludovic Orban keeps on giving contradictory signals. He wants to please both the responsible, who have strictly followed the rules of isolation and want a cautious return to their former lives, and those who are tired of staying indoors and wearing masks and want to get rid of all restrictions quickly.
Obviously, he will fail and annoy both categories. The electoral cost, however, will come from the first. They are the ones who expect maximum seriousness and competence from the government and cannot stand amateurism, hesitation and improvisation. That’s where the PNL pool of voters is. The others either do not vote at all or vote with PSD, in the absence of PRM, PP-DD, etc. Tariceanu himself will be unable to gain anything significant from the „happily irresponsible ones” although he clings to them desperately.
Second: the lack of resources. It doesn’t matter (anymore) that Dragnea, Tăriceanu and their people are guilty of ruining the state reserves. It will matter, however, that the Orban government will not have much to give to restart consumption and the economy. The only hope comes from the European Union, but how quickly and how much this help will be felt by ordinary entrepreneurs and citizens is a great unknown.
Third: the media campaign. PNL does not have to fight only against televisions and sites financed by political opponents. Two more hostile players have appeared, specializing in manipulation and misinformation: Russia and China. These industrial fishermen in the turbulent waters of the pandemic are furiously spreading conspiracy theories about the origin of the coronavirus but also urging disobedience to the authorities’ measures.
Their impact will not only be seen in opinion polls, in the unbelievably high percentage of people who say they will not accept to be vaccinated against COVID 19. It will also be seen in absenteeism at the polls, it will be seen in additional percentage points for the parties that dance to their tune and in six months will say that the restrictive measures were a deliberate act of destroying Romania.
Fourth: the return of PSD. In February, most PSD mayors and second-rate parliamentarians lined up at the doors of the Liberals to negotiate their betrayal. Today, they are looking forward to the elections to get their revenge. They are convinced that the PNL will come out beaten from the clash with the pandemic, and they will not even have to make the effort to bend down in order to collect the votes of the dissatisfied. The votes will come to them by themselves. As it happened before. In 2000, in 2012 and in 2016.
This explains the rude attacks of some local barons against the ministers who ruin their business or who reveal the devastation they left behind. Bădălău, for example, has no doubt that the virus has leveled the political playing field again and the most difficult times for PSD have gone already. And he’s kind of right. Nobody asked them about the robberies committed in the Dragnea era, they are rested, and the hundreds of millions of stolen euros are only good to be invested in their return to power.
Moreover, they feel less alone than ever. They look at how aggressive China has become in Romania, they tell themselves that the United States doesn’t really matter here anymore, that they talk but no one listens to them anymore and I understand from this that they have support.
Fifth: The date when the pension raise is due. I explained, in another editorial, why respecting the promise Dragnea made three years ago, to increase pensions by 40% starting with September 1, would mean destroying the country’s finances. At the moment, the burden that this growth would place on an economy that has already been hit hard by the pandemic would be tantamount to declaring bankruptcy. Therefore, it is even more certain than at the beginning of the year that the measure will not be adopted.
The problem for PNL is that not only postponing, but also phasing in this raise will have a significant political cost. That was one of the reasons why the President insisted so much on early elections. He did not want the announcement that pensions will not increase by 40% as of September 1 to be made before the parliamentary elections. It would have deeply affected the chances of reaching his main goal at this stage: the Liberals obtaining a high score of over 40%.
Today, there is no possibility to postpone defusing the populist bomb left by Dragnea until after the elections. The PNL will have to assume the effects of this responsible gesture before the elections and will pay at the polls for it. And the price will be high, because PSD will make full use of its propaganda machine in the campaign to put the equal sign between PNL and PDL, between Iohannis and Băsescu: the pension cutters!
Marcel Ciolacu was one step away from being elected, in March, as the new president of PSD. But even if this happens in the summer, Klaus Iohannis would benefit from it just as much as Traian Băsescu benefitted from Ponta’s becoming firmly entrenched at the leadership of the Social Democrats, in February 2010, to which he fully contributed.
Is there a way out for the president and for the liberals from the political-economic straits in which they were pushed by the pandemic? Yes. By not repeating the mistakes of Traian Băsescu and PDL.
They should understand that in such moments, when the crisis hits hard, everything is at stake. If they disappoint their voters now, if they do not invest 200% in maintaining their confidence, the rupture will be irreparable. Just like the one between Băsescu, PDL and their voters, ten years ago. In such moments, mistakes cost ten times more, and the serious ones become fatal.
On the evening of May 6, 2010, when he announced the cutting of salaries and pensions, Traian Băsescu used a phrase that became famous: „The state looks like a very fat man who climbed on the back of someone thin, and that’s the economy!” However, the Boc government did not have the courage to clean up the fat on the obese structures of central and local administration. They left untouched the arteries thickened by corruption, indifference and incompetence.
They were afraid to crack down on the onerous businesses that were moving, second by second, the state resources into the pockets of the cross-party mafia. They were afraid to strictly control absolutely all procurement contracts, from ghost computerization projects to the purchase of toilet paper.
They were afraid to massively purge the army of harmful or useless clerks. If they had done so, they might not even have needed to cut the salaries of the remaining public servants. If they had done so, they could have channeled the saved money into major public investment. Had they done so, the economy would not have restarted with so much difficulty, dissatisfaction would have dug less deep into the fiber of society, and perhaps neither the president nor the PDL would have lost power so quickly.
It is true that if they had done so, many politicians and businessmen, including many who were close to Traian Basescu, would have had to drastically reduce the number of Hermes purses, Bentley cars and houses on Kiseleff Avenue which they bought amidst the crisis.
What should the president understand from the failure of his predecessor? That he has to put even more pressure on the PNL than Băsescu put on the PDL in order to really enter the „CRISIS” mode. That if he can’t do it, the liberals alone have no chance.
What should the current PNL understand from the failure of the Boc government? If they let things go on as they have, they will miss the chance that opened for them in November. Half measures are not a solution and will annoy everyone. There is no chance that they will win the elections with a good score and not be forced to make major compromises from the first day of the new Parliament if they do not reinvent themselves quickly. And it can be even worse. With a little bad luck, if we have a second wave of the pandemic soon and if they address the five threats listed above in a relaxed manner, they will lose the elections, and PSD and its satellites will return to power.
Because it is not what the PSD does that will be decisive for the success or failure of the PNL in the elections, but what the liberals do to prove to the responsible electorate that it is worth while voting for them! And the voters who can bring them to 40% cannot be fooled by incompetents or braggarts who know nothing but to utter empty words! Nor by predatory provincials or stupid puppets like Andrușcă.
Neither can they be deceived with superficial changes nor will they be satisfied with „PSD with a human face” actions. They want to be convinced that PNL is a genuine liberal party, which really wants to help entrepreneurs, which puts the interests of those who pay taxes first, not those of the social assistance beneficiaries! They want to see genuine respect, not the same mockery with which the PSD members treated them. It’s that simple!
Of all the things (and they are not few) that they can do immediately, concretely, to demonstrate to the electorate who made it possible for President Iohannis to be elected and re-elected that it is worth mobilizing once again, one is essential: they should start stopping the hemorrhage of public money caused by corruption, political patronage and incompetence! Yes, it is a gigantic project, it will not be finished in a few years, but it can be started quickly, and the first results will be seen immediately.
If in the few remaining months until the elections they reveal, day by day, at least one element of the vast mechanism by which taxpayers’ money is either stolen or wasted, as well as the measures they have taken to block it, their effort will mean an exercise of honesty, competence and management unprecedented in Romania.
With or without a pandemic and beyond the economic recovery measures, the state-citizen relationship will still have to be reset once and for all. But judging by the severity of the economic crisis, we now need it more than ever.
The active, engaged, responsible segment of society, the people who push Romania forward need a large-scale demonstration of good faith as they need air, a demonstration through which the state would show solidarity with them. And they will stand by those who have the courage to do it, no matter how strong the forces that are trying to take advantage of this new turning point.