The first round of the Romanian presidential elections failed to produce a clear winner, triggering a runoff vote between President Traian Băsescu and challenger Mircea Geoană on December 6. However, first-round voters turned out in adequate numbers to make a referendum on Basescu’s government-reform proposals binding – and they spoke decisively and affirmatively on both questions. Geoană starts the two week campaign with the backing of the National Liberal Party (PNL), giving him a better chance of becoming the next president.
Consequences of the Election
- The successful referendum means President Băsescu of the Democratic Liberal Party PD-L) has improved his chances of keeping his job. Still, the Social Democratic Party (PSD)’s Mircea Geoană has won the backing of the National Liberal Party (PNL), giving him an edge in the run-off. Băsescu can use the referendum results to try to appeal to voters, but cannot win a second term without votes from PNL supporters.
- Should the incumbent president win a second mandate, the chances of an early parliamentary election greatly improve because a PD-L-led government would not be able to secure a stable majority in Parliament. Băsescu will try to court PNL voters by declaring that right-wing parties managed to win more than 60% of the vote. Such a tactic would yield questionable results: Animosity between the PD-L and the PNL runs deep. PNL-backed presidential candidate Crin Antonescu, who placed third in the first round of voting, has thrown his support to Geoană.
- With both sides refusing to budge, the 2010 budget is unlikely to be passed in the next two weeks. This can damage stability in a country that desperately needs external financial resources.1 The most recent statements from the IMF spoke of disbursing the next two tranches of its loan to Romania in mid-March. However, this is based on the assumption that Romania will have a permanent government by then. Should an early election become necessary, the country may not have a normal government by this time, since support for political parties has not changed significantly since November 20.
- If Geoană wins, Sibiu Mayor Klaus Johannis’s chances of becoming the next PM will improve. Geoană will put the emphasis on “demonizing” Băsescu until the runoff. He will work to convince voters that he is the main force standing in the way of a Băsescu “dictatorship,” calling on all “democratic” forces to support him. He will lean on the anti-Băsescu/PD-L coalition in Parliament for support. He is already courting PNL voters by promising to back “the social-liberal majority embodied by Johannis, which could become a reality on December 6.” As for Romania’s Hungarian minority, Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) leader Béla Markó followed up Antonescu’s statement by pledging to work closely with the PNL and to embrace the “Johannis option.”
Results of the first round
- Băsescu beat Geoană by a razor-thin margin, taking 32.44% of the vote to the PSD leader’s 31.15%. Turnout was 54.37% of eligible voters.
- Crin Antonescu (PNL) delivered the National Liberals their best result to date, winning 20.02% of the vote.
- The far right was not in play. Corneliu Vadim Tudor managed to win the support from 5.56% of the electorate, while Steaua owner George Becali had to be content with 1.91%.
- Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) candidate Hunor Kelemen came away with 3.83%, which is weaker than expected in light of past results. Turnout was low among Hungarians in Transylvania, which marks a sudden change: in past elections, ethnic Hungarian turnout has been significantly higher than the national average. A sizable number of voters did not think that Kelemen had a realistic chance of getting into the second round and therefore chose to support Băsescu, who – according to the exit polls – won in Transylvania by a large margin. Kelemen’s tally was also held down by recent infighting between Hungarian political groups that created a large number of disaffected voters.
Fortune is on Băsescu’s Side
The only thing that was a toss-up about the first round of the election was how President Băsescu’s referendum would fare. As it turned out, Romanians confounded pollsters who had predicted that turnout would not be high enough to make the referendum binding: 50.95% of eligible voters took part, squeaking past the 50% threshold for validity.
Both referendum questions were tinged with Băsescu’s populist, anti-elitist rhetoric; both passed with flying colours. The question on whether Romania should abolish the Senate in favor of a unicameral legislature garnered 77.8% of the vote; the second question, which asked voters if they wanted to reduce the number of MPs to less than 300, sailed by with 88.8%.
Băsescu can pass this off as a non-partisan referendum, since voters from all parts of the political spectrum supported his initiatives (thus guaranteeing the necessary 50% participation). Băsescu will try to use this success to build up momentum ahead of the decisive second round on December 6.
Election Fraud and Irregularities
- As expected, the voting authority received numerous complaints on voting irregularities such as vote-buying and voting multiple times.
- The OSCE said the elections conformed to international standards but raised concern about problems at special polling stations for travelers. A shortage of polling booths created exceptionally long lines, meaning many people couldn’t cast their votes.
- Whoever loses the December 6 runoff will probably make an issue of the reported irregularities, especially if the margin between winner and loser is very small. Reasonable reports of election fraud may undermine the new president’s legitimacy. If Băsescu manages to win a second term, appearances of electoral impropriety will be bolstered by the fact that the president’s PD-L party controls the Interior Ministry, which oversees elections. As noted in our previous Flash Report2, control over the Interior Ministry was a primary source of tension between the PSD and the PD-L: The PSD quit the coalition after Băsescu sacked the party’s Interior Minister in relation to comments he made on possible election fraud. Should Geoană lose, the political forces behind him may revive the scandal in order to discredit the president. This would further fuel the instability in the country.
1 See our special Risk Watch issue on Romania: http://www.riskandforecast.com/post/romania/most-significant-risk-factors-that-could-hinder-economic-recovery-in-romania_333.html
2 See our Flash Report titled “Crumbling Coalition in Romania” for details on the coalition break-up: http://www.riskandforecast.com/post/flash-report/crumbling-coalition-in-romania_275.html