Guest post from Cristina Bucur
The biggest opposition party in Romania, President Băsescu’s Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), held internal elections on March 23. Three candidates entered the race for the presidency of the party. Vasile Blaga, the incumbent leader, who was supported by the majority of local organisations and by most of the party’s elephants; Elena Udrea, a minister of tourism in Emil Boc’s government (2008-2012), who earned the support of considerably fewer local organisations but was backed up by President Băsescu and by the former prime minister; and Monica Macovei, who had only relatively recently joined the party but who was well-known for her anti-corruption campaigns as a justice minister in the coalition government formed by the Democrats (PD) and the National Liberals (PNL) in 2004 and then as a PDL MEP.
In the election, Vasile Blaga won a narrow victory at the first ballot, managing to pass the 50% threshold by just 44 votes. As she won only a few hundred votes fewer than Blaga, Udrea appealed the result but after a recount Blaga was elected. Macovei obtained about 3% of the delegates’ votes.
Displeased with the result and the procedural irregularities that prevented a second round of voting, President Băsescu announced his unequivocal separation from his former party. In a video message posted on his Facebook account shortly after the closing of the Convention, Băsescu accused the PDL of undemocratic practices and announced that they had parted ways for good.
The explanation for President Băsescu’s reaction to the defeat of his preferred candidate can be found in the evolution of the leadership contests in the PD/PDL after 2004, when he stepped down as party leader to become president of Romania. Following his election, Băsescu designated the ultra-loyal Emil Boc as his successor as the president of the Democratic Party. Boc ran unchallenged in the following year’s Convention and was almost unanimously elected as president by more than 3,500 party delegates. Following the break-up of the PNL-PD governing coalition in April 2007, the PD went into opposition. When the PD and a splinter group from the PNL merged in December 2007 to form the PDL, the leadership of the two parties chose Emil Boc as the leader of the new organisation. When the PDL won the 2008 general election and returned to power, Băsescu appointed Boc as prime minister. In this way, President Băsescu could finally count on the backing of a strong presidential party that was ready to serve as his personal power base.
The next internal elections in the PDL were organised in 2011. The leadership selection process had not undergone any significant changes compared to the Democratic Party’s previous internal contests. The central leadership’s full freedom to decide on the number of delegates representing each local organisation had done little to increase the competitiveness of internal elections and the inclusiveness of the party selectorate. In 2011, though, Emil Boc was already experiencing the negative effects of the economic crisis that his government had constantly had to deal with since 2008 and his popularity was declining rapidly. However, Boc was still backed by President Băsescu who fully endorsed the government’s austerity measures. Thus, although his leadership was challenged by Vasile Blaga, one of the party’s most senior members and the speaker of the Senate, Boc was still able to obtain twice as many votes from the party delegates at the 2011 Convention than his main rival.
However, two events triggered the organisation of new intraparty elections just one year later. First, the coalition government between the PDL and the Hungarian minority party (UDMR) collapsed in early February, following several weeks of street protests that had been triggered by austerity cuts. Second, the party suffered a crushing defeat in the 2012 local elections and obtained about 15% of the vote. Much to President Băsescu’s displeasure, Emil Boc was constrained to step down as party leader and new intraparty elections were organised. Boc’s refusal to run for a new mandate allowed Vasile Blaga to win the presidency of the party with an overwhelming majority. However, the leadership change did not lead to an improvement in the party’s electoral performance and the PDL suffered another defeat in the general election that took place in December 2012. This time the party’s vote share shrank from 32% in 2008 to little more than 16%. Vasile Blaga refused to assume responsibility for the electoral defeat and resisted all calls for his resignation. As a result, another national Convention was scheduled in March 2013 for the election of a new leadership.
Traian Băsescu’s involvement in the internal party campaign that preceded the PDL’s 2013 Convention was not limited to lending support to Elena Udrea’s candidacy. He also condemned the previous year’s overthrow of Emil Boc and criticised the new leadership’s inability to improve the party’s score in the 2012 general election. While he addressed the PDL Convention, Băsescu urged the party delegates to make as radical a change as they had done in 2001, when his own election ended the ten-year leadership of Petre Roman, who was no longer able to assure the party’s electoral growth. Băsescu also affirmed that he intended to come back to active party politics when his presidential term ended in 2014 and contribute to the return of a strong right-wing party to power after the 2016 general election. Finally, in his farewell message to the party following the re-election of the leader who was not able to deliver an electoral victory in the 2012 contest, President Băsescu affirmed his determination to pursue this course of action outside the PDL
Dublin City University