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Populist Christian Reformer: the Basescu pitch

Weeks before the election for the Head of State, President Traian Basescu is pitching himself to the Romanian people as a populist Christian Democratic reformer.

October 2009 - From the Print Edition

In a recent speech delivered to Parliament the incumbent leader attempted to lay out his credentials as a revolutionary force battling a pampered elite.
Although critics could argue that being the Head of State for five years makes him a significant member of the elite, he claims his objectives have been unfulfilled because of a permanent confrontation between forces of reform against a “self-satisfied and inert society” that wants to keep its privileges, many of which were inherited through connections with the top echelons of the Communist hierarchy. The incumbent is selling himself as a reformer by claiming he is in the middle of a revolutionary process and needs another five years to clean up justice, streamline Parliament and see Adrian Nastase behind bars.
Basescu has styled himself as a Christian Democratic leader who wants the church to be involved in schools, hospitals and social affairs. He said the institution has “an important role” in defining the historical identity of Romania. But recently Basescu welcomed a report calling for the legalisation of prostitution and, historically, he has advocated the rights of homosexuals with more progressive rhetoric than any of his challengers. Romania’s Orthodox Church does not, as yet, accept gays or lesbians as priests. Nor does it condone marriage for homosexuals and views certain practices associated with their sexuality with much disapproval. Unsurprisingly, the Church has not come out as a firm lobbyist for labour rights for working girls and rent boys. While Basescu publicly states he wants more of a role for the Church in public affairs, his policy line on social issues is not always in sync with that of the Orthodox Church’s conservatism.
His ambition for the next five years includes reforming the Constitution to create a single chamber Parliament and a change in the role of the President, which could give the post more power and immunity. But while many commentators invoke the fear of a revival of dictatorship, this is likely to only benefit the next President, as Basescu is (so far) restrained to only two terms in office. The leader seems more concerned about his legacy than the possibility of affording himself further personal control.
Because he cannot fight the leadership, he is instead battling with the past. His rhetoric talks of his conflict with the “old order” - this is a slight against the Social Democratic Party (PSD), which he still characterises as a Communist Trojan Horse in a post-1989 democracy.
Recently he spoke of Romania in 2004, before he was first elected, as a kleptocratic autocracy which “tolerated corruption at high level, limited the freedom of the press and marginalised the opposition” as well as penalising the emerging middle class with high taxes. He also bundled together the nation’s 1989 Revolution and the 1990 Mineriade, when Ion Iliescu asked miners to break apart an anti-neo Communist demo in Bucharest, implying this was a collective Romanian Ground Zero where 1,600 people died and no one was found guilty.
This presidential season each of the candidates will be vying to see who can encapsulate the spirit of the Revolution weeks before its 20th Anniversary - who can best capture the force of reform against reaction. None of the candidates were revolutionaries, but the campaign may turn out to be a cynical display where each competitor will be trying to ally himself with those standing in front of the firing line, while framing his opponent as the one pulling the trigger.

Michael Bird

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