On 12 December 2004 Romania elected a new president. Romanians have traveled a rocky road to democracy since their violent 1989 revolution against their communist leader Nicolai Ceausescu. The immediate post-revolutionary situation was confused and chaotic. The 1990s were a time of economic problems and political turmoil. That Romanians now stand at the new century’s threshold with a free and democratic, if still troubled, system is a testament to their resilience. In this era of democracy building, it is instructive to examine how Romanians struggle to maintain their young democracy. They went from dictatorship to democracy, pretty much by themselves, with no help from US President George Bush, thank you very much.
After the 1989 violence, it was unclear exactly who ruled. To this day, Romanians continue the debate about who was in charge after their revolution. Except for one term between 1996 and 2000, Ion Illiescu, a former communist and key player in Ceausescu’s ouster and execution, served as president. Questions linger about how Illiescu and his political party, the Social Democrats, gained and maintained power despite the evolution of Romania’s free electoral system. This explains the surprise at the defeat of his party and its chosen successor in the December 2004 presidential election, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. The victor was Bucharest’s former mayor, Traian Basescu.
And, a key question is, what do Romanians make of this underdog victor, Basescu? I can attest to at least one reason for his popularity. Travel back with me for a moment to June of 2000, my first day in Bucharest. My former student Elena, whose family set up my meetings with politicians and journalists, suggests we go to a nice restaurant near her family’s apartment for a good meal to help me relax after the long flight. We drive to the city’s center, park, and walk to the restaurant. But before we can get in, dogs, lots of dogs, immediately surround us, dogs of all sizes and shapes, wild dogs. Elena cringes, I do too. There are some really big dogs blocking our way. We edge past this canine collection, make it into the restaurant, and by now Elena is angry.
“Why doesn’t somebody do something about this!? It’s awful!” The next day we walk to various appointments around Bucharest. I see that the city has dogs the way some cities have rats; about 300,000 strays roam the streets. Where did they come from? Not surprisingly, the blame goes to the late Nicolai Ceausescu. In 1980, in pursuit of his grandiose Bucharest building plans, Ceausescu obliterated many residential areas, forced Bucharest residents into smaller apartments, and so they abandoned the pets they no longer had room for. In June of 2000 these dogs set loose are everywhere. Bucharest’s citizens try to ignore them, but, like New York City’s pigeons, they have no fear. And a big dog is a lot more intimidating than a pigeon. Shortly after the dogs were set loose, Basescu was elected Bucharest’s mayor.
Two years later, June 2002, I am back to see how Romania’s democracy is coming along. Bucharest is beautiful on this bright summer day. Flowers and trees line boulevards where the tanks rolled in 1989. And, I notice, there are no dogs roaming the streets, anymore. With what The New York Times recently called Basescu’s “no-nonsense approach to making decisions”, (14 December 2004), he determined to remake Bucharest, so it might compete with other great European cities like Budapest or Prague. First and foremost Basescu took on the dogs. Initially, the decision was to destroy them, but most of the dogs were saved. Film star and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot strongly, and very publicly, criticized the proposed killing of Bucharest’s stray dogs. She came to Bucharest and worked with Basescu to save the dogs. She donated $140,000, which helped to fund part of a “mass sterilization and adoption programme”. (BBC News, 2 March 2001) Elena and all of Bucharest’s residents were very happy. And they were especially happy with Basescu’s ability to navigate his way through a situation that might have put Bucharest in the spotlight as city of dog killers.
Romania’s 2004 presidential election showcases the Romanians’ desire for democracy, and their unwillingness to ever again be intimated; treated like dogs. But, despite Basescu’s skillful handling of the dog problem, winning the presidential election wasn’t easy. The 2004 election took place in two stages. On Sunday 28 November, voters selected 314 deputies for the Chamber of Deputies, and 134 Senators. The seats are apportioned proportionately to parties winning more than five percent of the vote. (For example, 40 percent of the popular vote equals 40 percent of the seats.) Romanians also voted directly for a presidential candidate. The entire election was quite close. Two multiparty coalitions won the highest number of seats in the two legislative houses: on the left, the Social Democratic Party, National Union, and Humanist Party of Romania, about 37 percent in each house; and on the center-right, the Alliance For Justice and Truth, National Liberal Party, and Democratic Party, about 32 percent. The other seats went to smaller parties. President Illiescu’s man of the SDP, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase won about 43 percent of the presidential vote, to Traian Basescu’s, of the center-right Truth and Justice Alliance, 35 percent of the vote. Again, candidates of other parties divided the rest.
The situation looked grim for the Basescu. It seemed that President Illiescu’s Social Democrats would remain in power in both presidency and Parliament. And Illiescu would still be around, in his new Senate seat. It was the same old Romanian story, “democracy,” but no Democracy. But, the election wasn’t over yet. Neither presidential candidate received the requisite 51 percent of the vote. That meant a 12 December run off election between Nastase and Basescu, the first round’s top two vote getters. This time Basescu pulled it out, 51.23 percent to 48.77 percent. (The New York Times, 14 December 2004) The victory also enabled his party alliance, and other smaller parties in the Parliament, to put together the votes to keep Illiescu’s Social Democrats out of the Prime Minister’s job, and put in Calin Popescu-Tariceanu of the National Liberal Party
So, now that Romanians have “thrown the rascals out”, are they truly on the democratic path? I am fairly optimistic about their current prospects. In Bucharest, the destruction of 1989 is long over, thankfully. For example, one of the city’s most beautiful buildings, the National Library, a scene of fierce fighting then, is restored, and its collections rebuilt. Thanks to Ceausescu’s destructive building policies, Bucharest will never be as beautiful as Budapest or Prague. But it is a lively, vibrant, and exciting city. The National Opera House is beautiful and lavish, inside and out, its productions first class. Imagine, Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus”, sung in Romanian. Exquisite. And, thank you Basescu and Bardot; one no longer has to dodge the dogs to enjoy the city! Indeed, whether in Bucharest, or in the northern Transylvanian city of Sibiu, or in smaller towns and villages sparkling in the summer sun throughout central and northern Romania, I could barely believe that Romania had ever suffered under an especially brutal form of communism.
Still, I was curious, now that he’s been elected, about what Romanians think of their new president. One of my Romanian acquaintances, a savvy former political operative, wrote to me both before and after the presidential runoff. Last November, before either of Romania’s election rounds, she wrote, “I do not trust any of the two front line competitors” the current Prime Minister Nastase or Bucharest’s Mayor Basescu. “The future is not too bright (as) Romania is not a great democracy”. Now, however, about a month after. Basescu’s surprising win, my friend is a bit more positive about Romanian politics. To her, the election result “was not a surprise, because Nastase (the loser) is not a popular person, and Basescu is; and because at least one-third of the electorate was determined NOT to vote PSD.” (Social Democrats) Also she was very pleased with some of the “excellent people in his team,” especially the new Ministers of Justice and Foreign Affairs. “So, I wait and see for the moment at least.” There is a distinct wariness in her view, the wariness of people treated badly in the past, like dogs that suffered a cruel master. But I find it encouraging that Romanians finally rejected the party that, since the tainted 1989 revolution, had held power.
I realize that, ultimately, we shouldn’t emphasize too strongly the success of Basescu’s agile Bucharest dog policy, or use that success in predicting his ability to handle the Romanian presidency. He did compromise nicely with Bardot. And, he was able to keep Bucharest, and its image, clean. Still, it was a very popular decision. Dealing humanely with Bucharest’s stray dogs, and as my friend notes, not being a Social Democrat will help provide Basescu with some leeway in the early days of his term.
Getting a handle on Romania’s sputtering economy as it hopes to head into the European Union in 2007 will be a more demanding test of Basescu’s ability to make tough decisions. Illiescu sits in the Senate. He remains powerful. And his party, the Social Democrats, though less popular, managed to grab the most seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Manipulating the treacherous shoals of Romanian parliamentary politics will challenge Basescu more than his dealings with Bardot did. How capable a democratic parliamentarian will he be? He pledged, “to be merciless towards any corruption act involving any Governmental structure.” (Romanian government press release, 29 December 2004) I think that Romania is poised to finally realize the potential for freedom and democracy the Romanians first seized in 1989. The people and the dogs of Romania now reside in a less threatening, more humane country. But, the true test of Romania’s “New Era” will be what my friends, and all other Romanians, think about, and how they respond to President Basescu’s democratic leadership.