Ten years ago, I was a new immigrant to Romania. I barely understood the language and my ancient television could only receive one channel over the air. I remember watching a bald man with a Dutch uncle squint, a kind of friendly pirate, cry copious amounts of tears.
That man was Traian Basescu. He was crying because his party’s candidate for president, Teodor Stolojan, had pulled out of the race at the last minute, supposedly due to a diagnosis of terminal cancer (Stolojan is still alive today, and exactly what happened all those years ago is still a mystery).
Throughout all the years that I lived in Romania, as I learned the language, the culture, the food, the music and the dances, as I traveled from one side of the country to the other, as I lived in a village, as I explored the big cities, as I helped tend sheep, dig potatoes, learn to make cheese, attend funerals, weddings and coming-of-age parties, as I laughed, as I loved, as I sat in countless tiny kitchens and raised glasses of tuica, there was always Traian Basescu, presiding over the chaos that is Romania.
Now his time in office is over – after two terms of 5 years, he is legally barred from running again. Romania’s constitution is a complete fucking disaster, written and amended willy-nilly by the idiots who run the country. Basescu survived not one but two (and nearly a third last month) attempts to recall him via popular referendum. His government was technically overthrown in a coup two years ago, and yet life went on.
And still, throughout it all, throughout the libel and the insults, throughout the recalls (that cost the Romanian taxpayers over 55 million euros), throughout the scandals and revelations, he always kept on grinning. That, plus his steadfast way of speaking in clear, enunciated Romanian (a boon to a foreigner learning the language like me), endeared him to millions.
And yet, at the end of the day, he was just an old Communist hack, a man who gained his initial popularity by slaughtering helpless animals, a man with a greedily corrupt brother, a man with one ambitious daughter who kept her mind on the money and a second daughter who cashed in on her unearthly beauty to become a politician.
Love him or hate him, today marks the end of his reign. When his presidency began, I was an optimistic immigrant. Today I am an exile, legally barred from entering Romania. And yet, I cannot help but feel that I’ve arrived at a better place here in the Republic of Moldova, if only because none of the candidates for the most powerful office in Romania are worth a damn.
As far as I can tell, he is officially the front runner. I have to say “as far as I can tell” because in Romania, nothing is ever as it seems.
I once seriously considered starting a second website, devoted exclusively to monitoring and reporting on all of the scandals, the arrests, the corruption, the bribery of Romanian government officials. But I gave up that idea because I knew that it would’ve been too difficult. There are simply far too many scandals. I would’ve had to work 24 hours a day to keep up with them.
And yet whether or not the polls are accurate, it’s clear that Ponta’s likely to make it to the second round (if no single candidate gets 50% of the vote, the top two face a run-off election two weeks from now). How can this even be? How can anyone stand his simpering, smirking grin, much less endorse him for the highest office in the land after his complete failure to complete any of his campaign promises?
Apparently it’s rather easy to bamboozle the Romanian people, who seem to have a deep psychological need for sociopaths. Ponta’s failings are numerous, as I’ve documented time and time again, everything from being unable to balance the budget to his blatant plagiarism to his inability to craft a simple letter in basic English.
But no matter, say the crowds. He is the anti-Basescu candidate. He is the slavishly pro-Orthodox Church candidate. He is the 1976 Jimmy Carter candidate, grinning on every occasion, blithely promising the moon to everyone while laughing off every criticism.
If Ponta is the “yin”, then Klaus is the “yang”, a man who speaks soberly, who rarely smiles, an ethnic German, an advocate of Protestant ethics glorifying hard work and shoulders to the wheel, the man who can actually deliver closer ties to Angela Merkel’s powerhouse economy.
It’s likely that 2014 elections will mirror those of 2009, a wide field of candidates that get narrows down to two, forcing a strong polarization. Either you’re for the grinning sociopath Ponta or else you’re for the practical man, the urbane German from Sibiu.
And yet, not all is what it seems when you pry back the carpet and look at the foundation of Klaus’s success. Maybe he and his ethnic German party spent too many years in power in Sibiu, and maybe they’ve come to resemble the profiteering mafia thugs of their fellow Romanian political parties a little too much.
There once was a time that Elena Udrea was the Minister of Tourism for Romania, and it was during that time that she really began to shine. And yet this success was largely because foreign reporters (almost all of whom are male) found her sexually attractive, bewitched by her bottle blond hair and brand-name clothes.
Domestically, there’s hardly any support for her candidacy. I have a feeling that most people who like her do so simply because she’s a strong woman, unafraid to stand up and speak her mind in the boys’ club of Romanian power politics.
But even a cursory look at her past will reveal the truth – she’s as corrupt as the day is long, her family and (former) husband’s power base in south central Romania nearly a perfect mafia monopoly.
As much as it would be a feminist success to see her elected into office, there’s not a shred of hope that she would bring real change to the country.
On the face of it, it never makes any sense why the UDMR (the nation’s biggest Hungarian party) even bothers to run a candidate. After all, everyone knows that only Hungarians will vote for him, and Hungarians are far too small a constituency (6-10% of the population) to make a difference.
And yet it does make sense, if only on an inter-Hungarian level. First, the UDMR puts up a candidate and then they tally how many Hungarians voted for him, a gauge to measure their people’s loyalty. It’s more of a vote to see who (amongst the Hungarians) still believes in Hunor Kelemen than it is to actually elect him president of the country.
If the presidential election comes down to a run-off, the UDMR’s goal is to swing their party’s votes to one of the candidates in exchange for concessions down the line.
In the history of post-WW2 European politics, I’ve never seen a minority party so consistently carve out such a powerful position as the UDMR.
Likewise, the fringe Hungarian party’s candidate is a measure amongst his fellow Szeklers to gauge just how popular he is (especially in contrast to Hunor Kelemen).
Szekler politics is an incestuous cesspool, largely misunderstood and ignored everywhere outside of Budapest and their stronghold in central Romania.
A vote for Szilagy is also a vote against Kelemen, which again is crucial only in terms of inter-Hungarian politics.
Gheorghe Funar and Corneliu Vadim Tudor
The two genuine crazies, both running for election, both candidacies entirely without any hope of winning.
In 2009, CVT surprised everyone with a strong second-place showing, leading to the face-off with Basescu. As much as many people disliked Basescu, nobody wanted a lunatic at the helm and so CVT was soundly defeated in the run-off election.
These days, CVT and Funar are in a fight to the death akin to wrestling over deck chairs on the Titanic. The nationalist, quasi-fascist “Greater Romania Party” is in shambles, with only young skinhead racists and elderly peasants still supporting their dreams of reconstituting Marshal Antonescu’s ludicrous dreams of an imperial state.
The “Donald Trump” of Romanian politics, a man who formed a party that is named after himself. He’s obsessed with conspiracies, UFOs and the color purple, and prone to amusing (only because he’s not in office) grand theatrics like riding around in a luxury automobile and showing up at auctions with giant bags of (purported) cash.
And just as Donald Trump continues to be an object of fascination and veneration in America, Diaconescu somehow still manages to cling to a shred of popularity. He’s probably sitting in his bunker in Rome right now, counting every vote as it comes in, believing each one to be a personal vindication and proof that he is the future messiah of the Romanian people.
Probably the only truly independent candidate, Billy Cheddar (my nickname for him) represents the Ecologist Party, a Romanian-flavored “Green” party, that has a lovely little tree as their logo.
I’ve been obsessed with Romanian politics for nigh on 10 years and I still can’t quite pin this man down.
On one hand, he was originally the “Great White Hope” of the early Basescu years, supported by parties on both sides of the spectrum during his time as prime minister. And yet his fall from power was nearly hypersonic after he badly mismanaged the budget.
For years he was on the ropes, nearly down and out for the count. And then like a rubber dummy, he bounced back up earlier this year, briefly Ponta’s new best friend and ally before Ponta decided to go “all in” and cash out his PSD party’s alliance with CPT’s PNL party.
And just a few months ago, CPT and Iohannis Klaus were leading lights of the same party, but then CPT split with them as well. So who are his allies now? Where does he get his support from? I really can’t tell.
And yet he’s sure to garner some votes today, if only because he has a lot of name recognition. He’s the man in the middle, scorned by all sides, and yet a candidate that can’t be entirely discounted simply because he’s got so much experience in the halls of power.
Once upon a time, a freshly-elected Basescu propelled Macovei to become the Justice Minister. And yet her term in office didn’t last long, primarily because she was seen as a genuine threat to the corrupt practices of her fellow politicians.
She then distanced herself from the domestic fray, spending many long years as a European Member of Parliament, hewing (mostly) to Basescu’s line, but immune from pressure due to her residency in Brussels. Time and time again, she has been praised for her stalwart crusades against corruption and injustice, and her lack of involvement in scandals and intrigue.
But she’s also been the greatest interlocutor the United States has ever had. She is Washington’s favorite person, a politician who agrees with all of America’s principles and aspirations. Every American ambassador and State Department representative has constantly lauded Macovei, nominating her for near-sainthood, accolades which rouse deep suspicions in minds like mine.
As stalwart a president as Macovei might be, I know within my bones that she’d be hamstrung from the very beginning, loathed by all the powerful players in Romania. I doubt she’d last an entire year before Ponta and his cronies arranged for her removal by referendum.
The “George Bush Senior” of Romanian politics, a deep spook who knows where all the bodies are buried, a quiet-spoken man who has had his hand on all the levers of secret power.
Why is he even running for president? It’s hard for me to say, especially as he doesn’t have much of a chance of winning. Is it to assuage his ego, to one day boast to his grandchildren that he ran for the highest office in the land? Or is it to get his name in front of the public, to build him up for a long strategy that will propel his political career in the far future?
Honestly, I don’t know. But if there was ever a Romanian who embodied the adage of “speak softly but carry a big stick”, it is Melescanu.
The Final Analysis
The electoral season for the presidency of Romania is already a circus and it’s highly likely that a run-off between Ponta and Klaus is going to be an insane spectacle of hyperbole, pageantry and comic theater.
In the end, it’s going to be a battle between the educated and the urbane versus the superstitious and aggrieved, the clown versus the banker, the illiterate versus the multilingual, the dreamer versus the pragmatist. Who will win? It’s impossible to say, especially sitting here a few hundred kilometers away.
But sadly, I’m far too Romanian in my soul to discount the fact that Romanians love their liars a little bit too much.
My prediction is that the young protege of Adrian Nastase, the serial plagiarist, the badly corrupt lawyer, the failed prosecutor, the grinning monkey who loves to party in Dubai and Rome, Victor Viorel Ponta, will be the next president of Romania.