Thursday, May 24, 2007

Basescu's tainted triumph

Romania and Bulgaria

Losers take all
May 24th 2007 | BUCHAREST
From The Economist print edition

A president triumphs at the polls—but is humbled by his loose tongue

FOR those hoping for political calm in Romania and Bulgaria, the European Union's newest members, last weekend was a reasonably good one. The Romanian president, Traian Basescu, won 74% in a referendum on his impeachment on May 19th, wrongfooting the minority Liberal-led government that suspended him. The prime minister, Calin Popescu Tariceanu, now concedes that the vote was a “waste of energy and money”.

What happens next depends largely on the Socialists, heirs of Romania's Communist Party. With 150 deputies, they are the largest party in parliament. The ruling coalition of Liberals and the Hungarian minority musters only 109. The best outcome would be an early election, perhaps to coincide with a European one this autumn. This is backed by Mr Basescu's Democrats, flushed with their referendum victory. One deal has the Socialists backing an early poll and dumping their more egregiously corrupt members in return for a big role in a post-election government.

Failing that, the Socialists might team up with the battered Liberals, in return for Mr Tariceanu's job. In theory, the Liberals could also continue with their minority government until the scheduled election in autumn 2008. But their plunging popularity suggests this would be unwise. On current form, they could even miss the 5% threshold for parliamentary seats.

Amid his enemies' confusion, Mr Basescu should be preparing for a glorious return to the Cotroceni Palace. But his triumph was marred by scandal. On the day of the referendum, Mr Basescu was hassled in a supermarket by Andreea Pana, a journalist who tried to film an interview on her mobile phone. Mr Basescu lost his temper, insulted her and grabbed the phone, telling her she could have it back on Monday. Unaware that it was still recording, he complained to his wife in the car about the “aggressive, stinking gypsy”.

Ms Pana, as it happens, is not Roma (gypsy) by ethnicity. But the incident reveals Mr Basescu's common touch (sometimes a strength) and his short-tempered manner (definitely a weakness). Many liberal-minded Romanians, including those who support his policies, condemned him; he has apologised. The scandal will dent his image among foreign admirers.

What would impress them would be a statesmanlike push in the battle against corruption. The EU is to issue a progress report on Romania and Bulgaria on June 27th. Both countries are struggling to root out corruption. In Romania the problem is distraction; in Bulgaria it reaches the heart of government. The prosecutor-general, Boris Velchev, promises early indictments in a case involving a top government man.

Bulgarian voters would like that. They shunned the coalition in a European election on May 20th. The winner was a party led by a populist conservative mayor of Sofia, Boiko Borisov, running on an anti-corruption ticket. But, as Mr Basescu's fortunes show, getting elected on a clean-government platform is one thing; making a lasting difference is much harder.

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