The Rise and Fall of Traian Basescu

The entirety of my life here in Romania has been marked by the presidency of Traian Basescu. I can never forget 2004 because it is the year that I quit my job, packed a suitcase and moved to Romania to start a new life. It is also the year that a politician, his star rising after a very popular term as mayor of Bucharest, appeared on national television with tears streaming down his face and announced, regretfully, that he was going to run for president of Romania.

I was intrigued by this man from the very beginning. With my limited language skills, Basescu was the one man I could actually understand, a politician who spoke slowly, clearly and precisely. Crying on television increased my fascination because I was a jaded cynic of democracy, where tears are only used by public officials to mitigate blame and to avoid punishment.

Back in 2004, the PD (now PD-L) party had a political alliance with the PNL party called the “Justice and Truth Alliance” (Alianta DA in Romanian, a clever play on words because “da” means yes). The head of the PNL, Theodor Stolojan, had been the Alliance’s pick for the presidential campaign but had withdrawn his nomination after he was diagnosed with cancer. It was the open and heartfelt concern for his friend’s health that prompted Basescu’s tears (full disclosure – Stolojan’s illness and what exactly happened is both mysterious and controversial but at the time this was the known story).

And from that day forward, I have never seen another politician who was so unabashedly open about his thoughts and his feelings. An ordinary man who cries in public risks embarrassment. A public figure who cries in public risks being condemned for “non-manly” behavior or the appearance of weakness and yet no one, not even Basescu’s most ardent rivals, has ever taken that route.

Some people forget that Basescu actually lost that 2004 presidential election, at least in the first round, to Adrian Nastase, head of the PSD, who received a lot more votes but was still shy of the necessary majority (50% +1). Neither candidate had prevailed in the first round because the odious Corneliu Vadim Tudor of the PRM (nationalist party) had split the vote. In the run-off elections held in December, however, Basescu won by a very small margin and became President of Romania for the first time.

Romania has an unusual political structure, much different than the rest of Europe, but nearly identical to the French system, from which it originates. Many Europeans have a titular or “non-involved” head of state, often a king or queen (Spain, Britain, Holland, etc) but sometimes called a president (as in Italy) and a head of government (often called prime minister or chancellor) who has most of the executive power. Although nominally there is some power sharing on the executive level, in every day affairs there is no conflict because the PM/chancellor rules virtually unopposed.

In Romania (and France), however, there is a president elected by direct vote, who is considered to be the “head of state” and then there is a prime minister who is the “head of the government”. The problem in both France and Romania arises from the fact that there is a complex system of competing executive powers.

The Prime Minister is not directly elected (he’s usually the party boss of the ruling coalition in Parliament) but is instead appointed by the President. But this appointment must be ratified by the Parliament. The Parliament passes laws but it is the President who must sign them. The Prime Minister can appoint people to certain positions but it is the President who must approve them. Conversely the President has the power to appoint people to certain positions and while the Parliament’s approval is not necessary, it is the Parliament which decides the funding and organization of these state institutions.

Most of Basescu’s presidency has been marked by a near 50/50 split between sympathetic and antagonistic political alliances in power in the parliament. His first Prime Minister was Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, bitterly upset that Basescu had earlier ousted him to become head of the PD (now PD-L). And it wasn’t long until Popescu-Tariceanu, along with willing allies from the PSD, modified the laws on suspending the president and then voted to remove Basescu from office (a move that prompted widespread panic in the American Embassy, which Wikileaks was so kind to inform us about years later) in early 2007.

A national referendum was held concerning Basescu’s suspension and the people decided that they disagreed with the ruling coalition in Parliament and returned Basescu to office, a lesson that his political enemies did not soon forget.

Upset by their loss and disenchanted with their alliance, the PNL switched sides and formed an alliance with PSD (as well as PC, a smaller party) called the USL. Despite their coordinated efforts, the parliamentary elections of 2008 were a victory for Basescu’s former party (technically the president is not a member of any party once he assumes office) the PDL, who formed a coalition with a few minority powers and thus were in the driver’s seat. Basescu tapped the then-mayor of Cluj-Napoca, Emil Boc, a senior PDL politician, to be his new Prime Minister. And from 2008 until early 2012, there was mostly harmony between the office of the President and the Prime Minister.

Basescu’s rivals, however, were chomping at the bit for a chance to return to power and crush him. In January 2012, Prime Minister Emil Boc made a fatal mistake by slashing emergency ambulance (SMURD) services from the national healthcare system (a move dictated by the IMF), which prompted Rael Arafat, the popular head of the SMURD, to resign. It was this move that prompted a spontaneous (and genuine) outpouring of people into the streets to protest despite the bitter cold.

Boc managed to convince Arafat to return but by then it was too late. Capitalizing on discontent with the IMF’s austerity measures and general dislike of Basescu, some unions and trade syndicates as well as the USL parties organized further protests. After a sustained but rather weak turnout (never more than 5,000 people on a single day) in the streets, Boc threw in the towel and resigned as Prime Minister.

The PDL and its allies quickly decided that the best way to deflect popular anger was to remove all of the old guard from the cabinet and bring in fresh blood. President Basescu nominated a former PNL politician who was then head of an intelligence service, Mihai Razvan Ungureanu (MRU), as Prime Minister. It looked like fairly smooth sailing ahead for the PDL and its allies under the MRU government because the street protests faded away. But the USL leaders were frothing at the mouth, angry that one government formed by their enemies had been brought down but another one put in its place.

In May, the USL then began concocting their master plan. At their earliest opportunity (by law the Prime Minister and his cabinet have a grace period), they introduced a motion of no confidence to try and bring down the MRU government. Simultaneously, they began bribing politicians of other parties, including the PDL, offering either future positions in a USL government or else convincing them to actually switch parties. When the no confidence measure was voted on, MRU and the PDL were shocked at the numerous defections, which just barely gave the USL enough votes to topple the MRU government.

Proving that they now had a slight numerical superiority in Parliament, the USL then asked President Basescu to nominate one of their own members, Victor Ponta, now the successor to Adrian Nastase as head of the PSD party, as Prime Minister. Basescu agreed and nominated Ponta, who was duly ratified by the Parliament, and began his reign of 2 months of pure chaos.

The USL then further changed the laws on suspending the president, installed their own man as next in line “in case” the president had to be removed from office, and yesterday pounded the penultimate nail in the coffin, suspending Traian Basescu from the office for the second time in his career.

All of this is history. But what I’ve always been surprised about is the visceral hatred some people have for Traian Basescu, the man. For professional politicians to squabble is normal, as obviously they are in office to increase their own power and wealth at the expense of their rivals. But why do so many ordinary people (as well as Ponta and Antonescu) really hate Basescu on such a personal level? It far transcends any ideological disagreement. No. A lot of people really just hate his guts with every fiber of their being.

Even here in Cluj-Napoca, a PDL stronghold (where Emil Boc was just returned to office as the mayor on June 10), there is universal surprise every time I state that I by and large support Basescu. I keep asking people why they hate the man so much and have yet to receive a concrete answer.

From people who are politically savvy, I hear rambling stories of parliamentary mistakes or corruption and criminal activity, but it always goes back to the actions of PDL (and prior to 2008, PNL as well) politicians, not Basescu himself. Amongst the less well-informed I hear shouts of “Flota!” (a corruption case predating 2004 in which Basescu was implicated but never convicted, similar to Whitewater for the Clintons) and “dictator!” and other nonsense. Not a single person has ever been able to give me a clear, logical explanation for why they hate the man so much.

It wasn’t until this week that I finally began to understand. On Thursday, a PSD senator named Toni Grebla read into the record a 16-page document outlining the USL’s positions on why Basescu “must” be suspended from office, all based on so-called “grave violations” of the Constitution. I actually read that document in its entirety and quite frankly it is laughable. Besides actual mistakes (referring to the wrong articles of the Constitution), most of it is quotes where Basescu said something offensive and how this “slandered” the government and was thus a “grave violation” of the president’s role under the Constitution.

I’m certainly not a lawyer and definitely not an expert in Romanian constitutional law, but even the Constitutional Court (half the members of which were appointed by the USL in years past, by the way) in its formal verdict on the USL’s charges against Basescu, was vague in its opinion and largely unable to find any concrete evidence of wrongdoing.

Just two weeks ago, I was watching that self-same PSD senator Toni Grebla on a television news program discussing whether or not the Prime Minister or the President had the constitutional mandate to represent Romania at the then-upcoming European Council meeting in Brussels. Grebla, a long-time member of the judiciary committee in parliament, waxed on at length about how his knowledge of constitutional law clearly led him to the conviction that it should be the PM representing Romania.

About halfway through the show, President Basescu gave a live speech to the nation specifically on this subject. Basescu outlined exactly what the Constitution stated on the matter and he reiterated that he had been a co-author of Romania’s accession treaties when they joined the EU and was thus extremely conversant on the topic.

After the press conference ended, Grebla and the other members on the program briefly resumed their debate when Basescu called into the show. It was then that I saw Basescu completely demolish Grebla and his arguments on the subject. It was a civilized debate with respectful words used on all sides but Grebla’s formerly cocky and grandiose attitude completely disappeared and I saw him visibly shaking as Basescu hammered him again and again on the rule of law. Grebla was made (rightfully so) to look like a fool and even though he refused to concede to Basescu’s arguments, it was painfully obvious that he had been whipped.

Seeing Grebla last week volunteer to read out the 16-page condemnation of Basescu into the record made me realize exactly where the hate for Basescu has been coming from all of these years. Basescu is a strong man, clear in his convictions, open about his sentiments, and despite (or perhaps because of) a lack of a lengthy formal education, speaks eloquently and convincingly. While other Romanian “leaders” use taunts, puerile nicknames and inflammatory insults (it’s standard fare to call your opponents a liar to his face around here), Basescu always stands tall and acts like a leader, speaking diplomatically and cohesively, preferring to discuss the relevant issues at hand rather than the personal shortcomings of his political opponents.

With neither a doctorate nor a master’s degree, he acts 10 times more intelligent than the egotistical members of the political class who have to buy, steal and fake their degrees and titles in order to feel smart.

Most people who hate Basescu on a gut level loathe the man for precisely the same reason Toni Grebla does – in some way Basescu makes them feel small. In a country with a crushing inferiority complex, making people feel small is a grave mistake, and it is unlikely that Basescu will be returned to office in the upcoming referendum by a population that was made to feel stupid by his being urbane. In a country where Click! and scandalous gossip about celebrities’ divorces and alcoholism problems is of far more interest than legislation, serious political debate and civic participation, the USL is definitely the people’s choice for now.

As strange as it may seem from the outside, the ongoing scandals with Victor Ponta and other USL leaders are actually increasing their popularity with the Romanian people. After all, it’s easier to like someone whom you know has made some stupid mistakes as that’s far preferable to a seemingly invincible man who made you feel small, stupid and weak.

The only reason Basescu has even been around this long is precisely because his political opponents have been unable to contain their greed, nepotism, authoritarian tendencies and corruption, not because the people ever truly liked Basescu. He was just the counterpoint to a larger evil. But after four years of austerity measures dictated measure by measure by the IMF (and a large dose of corruption by the PDL), the tide has turned and it looks like Basescu’s days are rapidly coming to an end.

Basescu’s greatest “mistake” however was failing to give the people what they truly wanted – another king, another dictator, another iron man ruler. He acknowledged as much in his speech last night to the nation, saying that he had always respected the division of powers and that he had never, and would never, infringe either on the independence of the judiciary or on the parliament’s right to conduct their affairs, including now suspending him for a second time.

While the USL and their sympathizers love calling Basescu a tyrant and a dictator, the truth is that had he seized absolute power in 2004, violating the rule of law under a democracy, and imposed his will on the government and the people, I would wager that he would be the most popular man in the country right now instead of one of the most hated.

For better or for worse, the adult has now been cast out and we are left to the mercies of gibbering, childish politicians to chart Romania’s future. I can only wonder who they are going to blame their problems on after “Base” isn’t around any more.

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