Game changers in Romanian Presidential elections 2014

Posted by Radu Magdin on 19/12/13

Imagine it‘s November 2014 and you are witnessing the first round of Romanian Presidential elections. If things stay as agreed between the partners in the Union of Socialists and Liberals, and the economy does not crash (a very unlikely scenario since it had the biggest growth in EU28 in 2013), Crin Antonescu, the leader of the National Liberal Party (PNL) will win at a limit the first tour; or, if not, he will be a strong favourite for the second tour of the Presidential elections. In the latter case, unless a United “Opposition” finds a true charismatic with a strong message (improbable for the moment), Crin Antonescu will be Romania‘s next President.
But things aren‘t always as scheduled in Romanian politics, quite the contrary. There can be several gamechangers in Romanian Presidential elections in 2014: some relate to international factors, some deal with internal politcs, and some with personalities.
I. International game changers
There are some international gamechangers for 2014. They have to do with the foreign media, external stakeholders‘ backing, elections in Hungary and Moldova, and a possible comeback of the financial crisis.
First, the foreign media: it can have an impact on the Romanian elections by their perceived, or supposed, objectivity in endorsing candidates. Since the President is the one who is the country‘s top external messenger, an assessment of its foreign credentials is key. In this context and if the elections move towards foreign representation as main theme, a former foreign minister with top contacts, like Mircea Geoana, can be a strong contender for Antonescu.
The same comment goes as regards external stakeholders, particularly the ones from Washington, Berlin and, as European Union mouthpiece, Brussels (here, it would be interesting to see the new Commission President, as well as the balance between the two main political families, the EPP and the S&D). Antonescu is a liberal (ALDE), and the EPP and S&D would logically prefer one of their own in the European Council (the Romanian Constitutional Court considered that it‘s the EPP President Basescu, and not S&D Prime Minister Ponta that should represent Romania at EU Summits).
For the first time, there will be top elections, in the same year, in Romania, Moldova and Hungary. If Viktor Orban tries to pump up the nationalist agenda, there will be responses from Bucharest, possibly altering the Presidential thematic agenda. That can lead to the PRM (nationalists) scoring bigger than expected in European elections in May next year, and possibly negotiating their support for the second Presidential tour. At the same time, if one of the candidates in the Romanian elections tries to bet, as a main theme, on a “union” with Moldova, this might take a more central role on the electorate‘s agenda. According to a November poll by IRES, over 70% of Romanians favour the idea of reunification with the Republic of Moldova.
One last “black swan” at this chapter, a possible comeback of the financial crisis. If this is the case, Romania will be affected by the international / European wave and “it‘s the economy, stupid!” might become central to the election. Otherwise, it‘s tough to make it a central part of the debate since a majority of the people seem to appreciate that no more salary or pensions cuts were done since the USL is in power; quite the contrary, they tried to get the level of salaries and pensions back to pre-austerity level, despite criticism that the money could be better used for investments.
II. Internal politics game changers
There are three gamechangers: USL breaking up, USL under a strong erosion via internal fighting in parallel with a United “Opposition” with a strong theme and charismatic leader, as well as the multiplication of urban youth protests.
First, USL breaking up, most probably in March 2014, before European elections where socialists and liberals are running separately; this means the PSD (the social democrats) will have to present a candidate, as Romania‘s biggest party. That will most probably be Victor Ponta. Unless the right wing unites behind Antonescu or any other candidate, Ponta is very likely to win the confrontation, helped by party discipline (the PNL‘s quest to become a “mass party” has alienated part of its traditional, mostly white collar liberals, electorate – this will show in May 2014, at European elections). If Victor Ponta thinks the PSD has a better chance with somebody else, like Sorin Oprescu or Mircea Geoana, he will probably prefer to stay on as PM.
Second scenario is USL going through a strong erosion but staying in one piece. That would mean that an “Opposition” candidate, most probably Catalin Predoiu, coming from the biggest opposition party organization (PDL / liberal democrats), could stand a chance in a second tour with a strong message based on USL-related economic and political disappointment. But Predoiu -like Mihai Razvan Ungureanu in case he will manage to get last minute support (he has a smaller organization, the Civic Force/ FC)- needs to secure his flank and count on President Basescu‘s endorsement, in order to have genuine success hopes.
Third black swan is the multiplication of urban protests, like was the case for Rosia Montana (with hashtags #rosiamontana and #unitisalvam). While mobilizing people who traditionally do not go to vote, the multiplication of urban protests can be a game changer from multiple perspectives: hijaking the agenda (the Facebook audience is 6 million out of 20 million) by forcing some TV coverage (parties still count on TV as the main channel to speak to “grassroots” Romania); giving or consolidating the impression that “something is rotten” in our Denmark (contributing thereby to erosion as well as blocking national plans dealing with energy security – the Chevron shale gas case); as well as, last but not least, channeling some key tens of thousands of votes -mostly negative ones- in the second tour of Presidential elections. This might affect Victor Ponta more than Crin Antonescu (the latter had similar views with the “crowds”) in case they compete against each other next year.
III. Personalities, as game changers
There are two personalities who can be absolute game changers -by their traits- in next year‘s elections. One is Mugur Isarescu, the other one is Sorin Oprescu. Mugur Isarescu is the highly respected central banker, who has been leading the National Bank (BNR) for more years than Alan Greenspan ruled the FED. According to polls, Isarescu would win against any opponent. The only question is if this is what he wants: not that probable, since he seems to target a renewal of his mandate at the BNR. Plus, as a cautious person, he would not get into the race unless he would be sure to win, and for that he needs backing from one of the three main parties: PSD (who knows?, and that would provide a tremendous spin doctoring surprise), PNL (not as long as Antonescu is the leader) or PDL (but they just nominated Predoiu as their candidate).
The second personality would be Sorin Oprescu, maire of Bucharest, in case the PSD decides to support him. He has a strong personality, he profiled himself as an anti-system politician to get support from voters across party lines. His Achilles heel is also his strong point: the personality. Let us not forget that PM Ponta‘s interest is to have a nice and decent partner at the Presidential Palace, who would leave the reigns of the country to the Government, and not a combative player.
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One final note about corruption. It has been a key theme is Presidential elections in 2004, it lost its “magic” in 2009, and will probably not be a game changer next year. The reason is pretty simple: despite the recent outcry on possible legislative modifications as regards the status of MPs, people do see politicians from different parties going to jail or getting prosecuted; the feeling of impunity is not as strong as it was in the past so it’s hard to turn the fight against corruption into a game changing theme.
To conclude, our assessment is that there will be a combination of factors and black swans, a mixture of the categories above, that will change the “expected” result at next year’s Romanian Presidential elections.

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