By Daniel Stroe – Bucharest
Romanian political parties have been busy over the past week licking the wounds left by the Euro-elections, with none of them reaching the expected threshold they hoped would not call for post-election changes, but which in the end came. Also this week, restrictions for land sale to foreigners went into force while the Romanian Orthodox Church steps in to influence religion teaching in schools, to secularists’ ire.
The elections last Sunday were won by PM Victor Ponta’s social-democrat led coalition, scoring 37.6 %, but below the 43-44 per cent the party was hoping for in order to clear their way to the presidential poll this fall. PSD was followed by their former political allies, the liberals, who pulled 15 %. PSD and the liberals were allies in what used to be the social-liberal union (USL) until February when it broke up amid dissensions.
Third came the democrat-liberals (PDL), President Basescu’s former party, with 12.2 % of the votes, followed by the Popular Movement (PMP), Basescu’s new party which got only 6.2 per cent. The Hungarians’ party UDMR also managed to go beyond the threshold and enter the EP again, with 6.3 per cent of the votes. The overall turnout was around 43 %, about the same as four years ago.
Noteworthy is that an independent candidate, former actor Mircea Diaconu, got 6.8 % of the votes, more than PMP and UMDR alone. But the votes for Diaconu have been translated by analysts into an anti-system reaction of the Romanian electorate. Also, Diaconu, a former member of the liberal party from which he was expelled, has received crucial support from the same media trust social-democrats have on their side and who were also interested to break the liberals’ electorate by sustaining Diaconu. With a lot of media exposure, Diaconu made his way into the European Parliament very easily.
As expected, the results troubled waters in the parties. First, the liberal leader, Crin Antonescu, assumed responsibility for the result and submitted his resignation. Antonescu had previously said that he would do so unless the party gets 20 per cent at the Euro-elections. But Antonescu’s move is part of a well designed scheme which is meant to propel PNL as the coagulator of the rightist parties in the perspective of the presidential elections in November. With the ruling social-democrats’ image eroding day by day, the liberals are trying to seize the moment and strike back.
Only two days after the elections were over, PNL and PDL met to agree on a joint agenda for the polls in November. The swift move is meant to take PSD by surprise, but to also sweeten the bitter taste of defeat in the elections by showing the parties are now regrouping for a new stake. The liberals’ leader said the two parties will soon agree on the name of the joint candidate for the presidential elections, but pointed out the fusion may not take place too soon. “There are fusions by absorption in which a small party joins a larger party and some more complicated when the parties are equally sized and then that takes a longer time” Antonescu said. In his turn, Vasile Blaga, PDL leader, said the candidate would be established following a series of “sociological research”. A protocol is to be drafted by the end of June when the liberals meet in an extraordinary congress.
The liberals’ ace in the sleeve is Klaus Johannis, the German ethnic mayor of Sibiu, a city in central Romania. Most probably, Johannis will take over the leadership of PNL and will be propelled as the candidate for presidential elections, also supported by PDL. With Johannis firmly rooted in this race, it is unlikely Basescu’s party, PMP, may have another choice but to support Johannis. Another candidate for the elections in November may divide the rightist electorate again and that will only favor Ponta. For now, PMP announced it would stay out of the PNL-PDL alliance.
Also this week, the restrictions for land sale to foreigners went into force. Romania was forced to liberalize land sales as of January but the government moved quickly to restrict them, as other European countries did. The new regulations say there’s a preemption right given to co-owners, neighbors, tenants and finally the state. A seller has to first register at the local town hall before selling his or her land and has to wait for 30 days during which preemptors have the right to buy. The sale is free afterwards if no preemptor is interested in buying.
On Friday, the media disclosed a secret protocol signed by the Ministry of Education and the Patriarchy which annoyed secularists in Romania. The protocol concerns teaching religion in schools and neither of the two parties has made it public, raising questions about its provisions. But sources revealed that among the provisions are those which say priests can inspect schools during religion classes and a religion teacher has to receive the go-ahead from the parish priest before being allowed to teach in a school. A secularist association in Bucharest reacted promptly and asked the Church and the Ministry of Education to publish the protocol, denouncing the “new rights of interference” with the education system the Church secretively received. The debate is likely to develop over next week.